Lately, a lot has been written about the 13 minutes long badly filmed youtube clip called ”Innocence of Muslims”. Some of them I would simply like to reccomend. There are also two that I find very problematic, and I will make a brief attempt to explain why.
Some that I simply reccomend:
* Innocence of Muslims: a dark demonstration of the power of film – The Guardian
* The truth about Muhammad and Aisha – The Guardian
* Politics of distraction – Freedom House.
* Addicted to mockery – The Jakarta Post
* Hate Video – al Jazeera
* Beyond insulting the prophet – al Jazeera
* Q&A: Why are Muslims angry over video? – al Jazeera
First text: About ”The Muslim”
Over to the two articles I’m having problem with, I’ll start with the CNN BlogWhy Muslims are still mad at America. It’s a good article, really. Only three problems to me.
First of all, it is really trying to generalize what ”some Muslims feel” into ”what the Muslims feel”. It seem to have this strong desire to turn the Muslims of the world into one coherent Monolith. And it does so without bad intentions. This is not about Muslims as such, it is about a certain way of doing social science. A way that is classic, but outdated and counterproductive for gaining true understanding.
Second, it’s historical scoop is narrow. This monolithical ”The Muslim” that it’s trying to describe is a rather new social construct, the result of a few decadews of religious revival. The text doesn’t even mention that secular socialism used to be very strong in the arab world. Instead, it portrays the present situation as being eternal.
Third, it uses this classic false portrayal of the west. The false dichotomy of the West versus the Muslims, where the west is Secular and the Muslims are religious. This is wrong on so many levels.
Yes, it is true that people in countries with Muslim population majority are angry at the west for pushing secularism. But the article leaves out two of the main reasons for why they have reason to be angry about that. One reason is that this is only the latest whim of western governments, who until recently helped to push political Islam on the populations of the middle east. All in the name of the cold war and the fight against the red block.
The other reason is that this ”secularism” is pure hypocricy. The same countries that claim to work for secularism has Christian politicians and Christian parties. Often the same politicians and parties that push for secularism in the middle east. People have reason to believ that this is not a matter of atheists trying to push back religion, but rather a matter of Christians trying to push back Islam. Western civilization has a long history of pretending that ”democratic equals Christian”. That Muslims can’t be democratic because they would elect leaders who are Muslims rather than Christian.
A few days ago, the (Muslim) population of Jakarta elected a deputy Governor who is a Christian. That was awesome. Is the (Christian) population of Washington DC ready to elect a deputy Major/Governor who is a Muslim? Sadly, I don’t think so. Western countries suffer from the same religious tribalism that they accuse Islamic cultures of.
Second text: Saying what you wanted to say anyway
This text is called ”The only surprise is there aren’t more violent protests in the Middle East”, written by Seamus Milne.
If the protests are not really about the film, then what are they really about? Milne makes it very simple. To him, it is all about the struggle against American Imperialism. He makes it seem as if political Islam is nothing else than a face of, or a tool for, this struggle of western leftwing groups.
It is true, of course, that American Imperialism has had a big and often negative influence on the world. It has prepared the soil for extremists within Islam to become powerful voices within the religion. I do believe that American Imperialism is one of the reasons behind radicalization within Islam during the last half century or so.
Six decades ago, USA and Britain betrayed democracy for their petty greed. In a nasty plot called Operation Ajax, they stopped the democratization of Iran. All for the sake of oil money. If the democratization had been allowed to continue, the world of today would most likely be a much better place. A world where the middle east is home to old and stable democracies, not terrorist networks.
Less than a decade before Operation Ajax, the British government betrayed the palestinians and the Jews. Most of what is currently known as Israel and Palestine was then a British colony. England, needing support in the war, promised the land to both sides, knowing full well that this would neat to war between the Arabs and the Jews. To this day, people are still debating on whether it’s the Jews or the Muslims that we should all hate. Both sides are wrong, of course. Put the blame on Winston Churchil’s government where it belongs, and start sympathize with both sides of that horrible conflict. To this day, palestinians are still mistreated by arab governments as well as by Israel, while israelians live in constant fear of extremist arab groups that wish to start a second holocaust. Bad deal for everyone.
Milne is right that people have good reasons to protest. He is not right, however, that a protest is automatically about what it ought to be about. As the other linked articles show, this issue is really complex. It includes facets such as totalitarian groups trying to gain influence at the expence of more moderate groups, leaders using the controversy to direct anger away from the real issues, and so on. The harshest language, and the most violent protests, come from groups that are strongly opposed to democracy and free speech. Groups that see their own leaders as future dictators, entitled to rule with an iron fist over all Muslims. But to some western left-wing intellectuals, this threat against the freedom of Muslims (as well as the freedom of non-Muslim in countries where much of the population identifies as Muslim) is nothing more than a tool to be cherished and used against America. Naive at best, totalitarian or heartlessly cynical at worst.
People in the middle east (and elsewhere) has a lot to be angry about. It is sad that so much of this anger is currently being channeled through totalitarian movements. Milne mentions only one alternative to politicized totalitarian religion: Nationalism. However, that is a rather bad option as well. There are worthier causes to fight for. Democracy, Human Rights, Freedom of Speech. And guess what? Those struggles continue. The film controversy may be considered more inetersting by the mass media, more conveient by certain leaders, and more useful by totalitarian groups – Islamic and antimuslimist alike. Meanwhile, more interesting things are happening, although they are getting much less attention.
Milne’s goal seem to be to explain the situation to Western readers. He manages to explain that people have reason to be angry, but that is all he manages to do. sadly, for many western readers, the analysis stops there. Milnes article gives two simple questions and two simple answers: Why are people angry? Because of bad things done by the West! And why do they focus their anger on a random guy saying bad things about Muhammad? Well, because they are Muslims and that’s what Muslims do – just look at the Rushdie affair and the danish cartoon affair.
The first question is a good question, but the answer is overly focused on the West. While the answer is part of the truth, it is also a very egocentric answer. This is a western guy telling Western readers: ”You don’t have to understand the middle east, because this is really all about us westerners in the first place”.
The second question is wrong in itself. The populations of the middle east do not focus on the film. Some angry people protested a bit, these protests was not a bigg part of their lives. A few totalitarians ”protested” a lot, with violence. And indeed, this had very little to do with the film, although their reasons were very different from Milne’s rosy portrayal. Mass media coverage here in Indonesia focus on how to handle the few violent protestors, the attitude to the film itself is that it is awful – but only a little youtube clip. Some politicians, including the President, have taken an interest. This interest has not been in the film itself, but in the legal framework. The President argues that all blasphemy against all religions should be outlawed, globally. While I strongly disagree with him, as do many others, at least he puts the issue on a level that can be discussed rationally and in an interesting way. It is not about some idiot making a film, it is about how authorities should handle when some idiot makes a film and people get angry about it. I do think the blasphemy law is doing terrible damage here in Indonesia, and exporiting it would be a very bad idea. Countries like Indonesia and Germany ought to get rid of their blasphemy laws, replace them with stronger protection against hate-speech that is actually inciting violence.
Anyway, with the question itself being wrong, the answer is even wronger. The Rushdie affair was very much a part of Iran’s totalitarian dictatorship asserting itself and exporting the idea that we must accept horrible regimes oppressing the entire population – because only such a regime can protect us from a single individual writing a little novel. The Iranian regime didn’t do this because they are Muslims, they did it because they are a totalitarian dictatorship. Such dictatorships will always need ”enemies of the faith” to vanquish, so that they can give an illusion of being needed and of being the true representatives and defenders of the people. Lets not fall for that.