Tuesday, 25 September 2012

On the Mock Film Riots

(Originally on 24 September, 2012.)

As one can observe from the news, the demonstrations have lasted for a second week in Kabul against the anti-Islam mock film and the cartoons in a French magazine, or at least ostensibly against those issues. What the news have primarily left untold is that most of the demonstrations have been peaceful. Even though Afghanistan is simultaneously one of the most conservative and one of the most unstable country in the Islamic world, no embassy, consulate, Western company or fast-food restaurant has been torched here during these weeks.

The Taliban and other radical groups have of course made attacks which they would have done anyway. Almost every day there is a roadside bomb explosion or a shooting incident somewhere in Afghanistan. To stick to the trends of the moment the Taliban and their ideological kin of course now like to claim their attacks as revenges for the video that so insulted the Prophet and all Muslims.

Acts of violence by small extremist groups, which have been set to coincide with the demonstrations - even they representing a small minority of the Muslim populations but much more understandable - have again promoted the image to the world that Muslims are generally raging and rioting troublemakers. The matter has not been made better by the Egyptian television preacher and the Pakistani railways minister, who directly incited violence, even though the governments of their respective countries as well as basically all decent Muslim organizations and scholars, including Al-Azhar University, have condemned the use of violence as a response to the undeniably despicable video.

Many of the more informed observers have remarked that provocateurs on both sides have exploited the situation in full. The Islamophobes who created and spread the video had an obvious intention to demonize and provoke Muslims, generalizing and framing all Muslims as violent thugs. On the other hand, Islamist fanatics sought to incite their followers to believe that the video was part of a wide and intentional conspiracy, an anti-Muslim campaign where the US government and all the Americans (or all the Westerners) were involved. Both the extremes managed to foment exactly the kind of hatred and bigotry among their own audiences that they were after.

As if to highlight their hatemongering intentions, the makers of the video first posed as Jewish-Americans or Israelis, although it was later revealed that the video was created by a newly born Christian with Egyptian background with earlier convictions, a notorious preacher abusing religion, and an elderly American with experience from adult entertainment and several known pseudonyms in the Islamophobic internet scene. As if to incite hostilities between the confessional groups in Egypt, the maker of the video has also presented himself as a Copt, although it seems more likely he supports some American newborn Christian sect. The Coptic Church of Egypt has strongly condemned the anti-Islam video, while the best-known abode of Sunni Islamic scholarship, Al-Azhar University, has in turn strongly condemned the violence that took place in reaction to the video.

Antero Leitzinger, a Finnish researcher with wide expertise of the Islamic world, wrote the following about the riots in the Finnish daily Helsingin Sanomat:

One of the most sharp-sighted Islam experts of our country, Husein Muhammed (in Helsingin Sanomat, 22 Sept. 2012), critized academics for trying to understand and explain Islamist riots by citing collective distress experienced by the believers. In the reality, majority of Muslims do not care to rage about someone mocking Islam on another part of the world.

Islam is not a post-traumatic mass psychosis revenging the humiliations of the crusades or colonialism. There is also no one theme in the contemporary international politics that would unite all Muslims. Especially the Muslims of Bosnia, the Albanians of Kosovo, the Kurds of Iraq, and the Hazaras of Afghanistan do not disapprove the Western interventions against the genocides once threatening them.

There is however something in common between the recent riots and the cartoon crisis of the early 2006. Seven years ago, the Syrian regime was threatened by the international criminal investigation on the assassination of the prime minister of neighbouring Lebanon, in which case the clues had pointed at the Syrian Military Intelligence. The Syrian Minister of Interior Ghazi Kanaan, who had been interviewed as a witness, was said to have shot himself on 12 October 2005, after which the investigation got stalled. In January 2006, Syria's former Vice President Abdulhalim Khaddam accused the President for having his talkative Minister of Interior assassinated, and defected to form an exile government. Three weeks after, "enraged" demonstrators torched several embassies in Damascus, and many Westerners again decided to believe the regime that claimed it was necessary to control extremist groups in the Middle East.

In September 2012 the first attack targeted the US Ambassador in Libya, which had as the first country recognized the Syrian opposition as the legal representative of the country. Once again many Westerners believe that Muslims are primitives, immature for democracy, who without the firm grip of a dictatorship go out of control over any minor matter.

Islamists do not represent the majority of Muslims, and they do not act spontaneously. They serve the political interests of certain governments, and they gain the necessary resonance from the Islamophobes, for whom "Muslim rage" is the sought-for evidence for the inherently violent nature of Islam. Opposite extremists feed each other's propaganda, and critical journalism should rather investigate the possibility of an intentional provocation. One should not always seek for the first answers from selective Koranic shuras, or dwell in the problems of Palestine, since the reasons might be found much closer. It was evident in the Norwegian tragedy what kind of a fallacious world-view can result from impatient generalizations and from confessionalization of political conflicts, let alone the challenges of immigration.

The article by Husein Muhammed mentioned above can be found in Helsingin Sanomat, and Husein has also written criticism at the riots protesting the video in Uusi-Suomi. Let me add a quotation also from Husein:

Whatever reasons one sought for the riots, for the rioters themselves the issue is that the mock video should not have been let published. For example, outside Syria there haven't been organized riots to protest the fact that already tens of thousands of Muslims have died in the country. Instead, the rioters rage about a stupid piece of video uploaded to the web. A scholar cannot dismiss this by presenting "nobler" reasons for the riots.

Some Muslims seem to think that there will be an end to the mocking of their religion if they express themselves insulted enough. This is something they're very wrong about.

More materials mocking Prophet Muhammad will appear in the future for the very reason that people still take the trouble of getting so insulted for him. Jesus is nowadays left in peace because hardly anyone anymore cares to get insulted for him. Therefore, if we Muslims don't want our religion to be mocked, we had better not get so excited about stupid mockery at us.

In fact, the majority of Muslims don't really care about the gig. They are irritated and their relations with Westerners are significantly damaged by the raging of Muslim extremists. The least the Muslim majority needs is that cultural-relativist Western scholars defend Muslim extremists and present it as if there were noble reasons behind the latter's rage.

Fortunately Husein is not entirely right about Syria. Namely, there have been many demonstrations in Arab countries as well as in the Kurdish areas against the oppression and violence that the Syrian rogue regime has committed against its population. In Lebanon some of these riots turned violent.

In my opinion, one of the sharpest general analyses of the situation was found in the web journal Avaaz. They presented seven facts that help to set the mock video mess in its proper proportions:

1. Early estimates put participation in anti-film protests at between 0.001 and 0.007% of the world's 1.5 billion Muslims – a tiny fraction of those who marched for democracy in the Arab spring.

2. The vast majority of protesters have been peaceful. The breaches of foreign embassies were almost all organised or fuelled by elements of the Salafist movement, a radical Islamist group that is most concerned with undermining more popular moderate Islamist groups.

3. Top Libyan and US officials are divided over whether the killing of the US ambassador to Libya was likely pre-planned to coincide with 9/11, and therefore not connected to the film.

4. Apart from attacks by radical militant groups in Libya and Afghanistan, a survey of news reports on 20 September suggested that actual protesters had killed a total of zero people. The deaths cited by media were largely protesters killed by police.

5. Pretty much every major leader, Muslim and western, has condemned the film, and pretty much every leader, Muslim and western, has condemned any violence that might be committed in response.

6. The pope visited Lebanon at the height of the tension, and Hezbollah leaders attended his sermon, refrained from protesting the film until he left, and called for religious tolerance. Yes, this happened.

7. After the attack in Benghazi, ordinary people turned out on the streets in Benghazi and Tripoli with signs, many of them in English, apologising and saying the violence did not represent them or their religion.

The anti-violence demonstrators in Benghazi and Tripoli also declared that thugs and killers are not allowed to represent either Islam or the Libyans, and that Ambassador Christopher Stevens was a friend of the Libyan people. Some days later the activists of the Libyan revolution also attacked the headquarters of the Salafi radical group Ansar ash-Shari'a, torched it and expelled the militants from Benghazi.

The world was shown images of Libyans carrying the dying Ambassador Stevens, and they were falsely claimed to depict the Ambassador in the hands of the terrorists who killed him. The Islamophobic movement also spread lies about the Ambassador having been raped. In the reality, the Libyans appearing in the images and on video actually saved Stevens from the burning building and tried to get him to a hospital, unfortunately too late. The Libyans who on the video say Allahu akbar say so because they realize the man is still alive. Yet the world was of course offered lies that they would have rejoiced his death.

The Avaaz article also offers many links to other good recent articles about the issue. Hisham Matar's article in the New Yorker deals with the mentioned death of Ambassador Stevens at the Benghazi Consulate. Sarah Kendzior's on-the-point article in Al-Jazeera discusses the problem of generalization and representativeness in reporting the mess. Kendzior summarizes the conflict as follows:

The Innocence of Muslims was made by Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, an Egyptian-American who hates Muslims. It was found on YouTube and put on Egyptian television by Sheikh Khaled Abdullah, a man trying to convince the world that Americans hate Muslims. This was a perfect storm of gross and deceitful parties depicting each other in the most vile terms, and then living up to each others' worst expectations.

Emotional issues such as the mock film scandal and the consequent murder of Ambassador Stevens are used as tools for political machinations for the very reason that they agitate emotions. In distant corners of the world such as Afghanistan and Finland, people get agitated by this and that case, forgetting that the Islamophobic movement that made and spread the video, and the radical Islamist movement that used the video as their warhorse, in fact share exactly the same goals: They want to drive the two largest religions of the world into a senseless hatred against each other. Into a "clash of civilizations" as Samuel Huntington named it in his otherwise rather fallacious theory.

These movements that intentionally seek to incite hatred are enemies of civilization. Civilization requires tolerance for difference, also for religious difference, and respect for other people, their history, cultures and faiths. There is no "clash of civilizations", just the clash of hateful extremist movements against the one and shared civilization of humanity.

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