The Backlash Over ‘The Innocence Of Muslims’


Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL)
September 21, 2012

Backlash against the anti-Islam film the “Innocence of Muslims” has sparked demonstrations in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Egypt, Libya, and several other countries with majority-Muslim populations.

Though significantly smaller than the protests of 2011 that toppled governments in Tunisia, Egypt, and elsewhere, some of the demonstrations have turned violent and have been marked by attacks on Western diplomatic outposts. The most high-profile attack came on September 11 — the day the protests began — in Benghazi, Libya, where an armed group stormed the U.S. consulate, killing U.S. Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens.

For more on who is protesting and why, RFE/RL spoke to academic Olivier Roy, historian and writer Tariq Ali, and author Charles Kurzman.

Olivier Roy: “It’s not true that there is a general ban on pictures of Muhammad. It’s a Salafist view and now the Salafist view is dominant. But if you look at miniatures in the Middle Ages, you had a lot of representations of the Prophet. The story that there is no representation of the Prophet in Islam just doesn’t exist; it’s a modern invention. You can find a huge iconography of Muslim representations of the Prophet, including in Pakistan, by the way. Until the 1960s, you could buy a picture of Muhammad in the shops in Pakistan. It’s only a recent kind of Salafist interpretation.” [READ THE ENTIRE INTERVIEW]

Tariq Ali: “Without a doubt [local grievances against the West play a big part in these protests]. The religion has been politicized. The reason for that, of course, is that during the Cold War the United States was backing most of these [extremist Islamist] groups to fight communism all over the world, especially in the Muslim world. Wahhabi preachers were sent with American approval by Saudi Arabia to create what we now know as political Islam.” [READ THE ENTIRE INTERVIEW]

Charles Kurzman: “I call this a clash of hatreds. Most people do not hate one another and yet these small groups who do hate seem to be able to grab the headlines and get everybody’s attention. Let’s keep in mind that protesting an insult is perfectly legal in most countries, including the United States, and if people want to hold signs or even burn flags, they’re allowed to do that. That is called free speech, and so I do not mind when groups organize to protest a movie. I think that is a sign of political participation.” [READ THE ENTIRE INTERVIEW]

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(1) Olivier Roy: Violence Is Simply Politics, Not A Clash Of Civilizations

As the Muslim world continues to react, sometimes violently, to a film, “The Innocence of Muslims,” that portrays the Prophet Muhammad in a negative light, observers are weighing in on the reasons behind Muslim anger.

One is Olivier Roy, a French scholar who has written extensively on Islam and the politics of the Middle East and Central Asia. In an interview with RFE/RL correspondent Frud Bezhan, Roy argues that the violence is not driven by a clash of civilizations, but rather by regional politics.

RFE/RL: Why has “The Innocence of Muslims,” the low-budget film that satirizes the Prophet Muhammad and Islam, caused so much violent outrage? Is there a historical, religious, or political explanation as to why defamation of religion in the Muslim world often leads to violence, as opposed to other regions and religions?

Olivier Roy: The issue is not Islam; the issue is political agenda. What we have now in the Middle East is a sort of triangle. We have the Arab Spring, the Salafist movement [which advocates violent jihad and a strict interpretation of Islam], and the pro-Iranian coalition.

Both the Salafists and the Iranians are trying to make use of anything that could turn the Arab streets against the West and to undermine both the Arab Spring and to undermine the conservative Sunni coalition, which is against Iran. We have a Sunni coalition with Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt, and the Gulf states which strongly opposes the Iranian interference in the Middle East. This coalition has the same interests, which is to prevent Iran from having a nuclear bomb. So, the Iranians are trying to split this coalition by calling on the Arab streets to fight against their governments.

It is not a matter of clash of civilizations or this stupid stuff; it’s politics.

RFE/RL: Why is freedom of expression — in the form of films, books, and art that are critical of Islam — not tolerated in the Muslim world?

Roy: It depends on the countries themselves. You can do that in Turkey, for example, but it’s a bit difficult to do that in Egypt. Once again, it has to do with politics.

When the government is looking for the support of the Salafists, of course there is a problem with criticism. But when the government is neutral or democratic, there is no such problem. So now the issue is to see to which extent democratization will give way to free speech. We have a coalition of Salafists and conservatives who are opposed to both free speech and democratization. So it’s once again linked to the present evolution in the Muslim world.

RFE/RL: You have said that some controversial publications and artworks have not attracted the same outrage as this film. What has made this controversy so explosive?

Roy: It depends what they do. You cannot speak of “The Innocence of Muslims” as art. It’s not a piece of art; it’s just bullshit. So, there’s a big difference between — let’s say Salman Rushdie, a real writer and artist — and “The Innocence of Muslims.”

So, I think that there have been criticisms and critical pieces of art, which didn’t [lead to] anything. The problem is when it’s politically manipulated by Muslims or the Christian right. So, it’s largely a matter of political manipulation.

RFE/RL: Some commentators have suggested that the violence over the film illustrates wider anti-Western sentiment in the Muslim world. What kind of role have local grievances against the West, and in particular against the United States, played in the violent demonstrations?

Roy: The protests have been carried out by [only] a small minority. [For example,] you have 2,000 Salafists in Tunisia and you have 190 in Paris. So, it’s politically motivated. It’s simply politics. If the Muslim world were against the West, you would have millions of people on the streets, but now you only have thousands of people on the streets. So it’s a way to present an elliptical illusion.

RFE/RL: What kind of role have extremist Islamic circles played in the violence over the film? Has there been a divided response in the Muslim world toward the controversy?

Roy: You have Salafist Islam, liberal Islam, conservative Islam; you have what you want. So the issue is not Islam; the issue is which kind and which ideology. You have Salafists and the Islamists. The Islamists are changing now because 20 years ago it would have been they who would have gone to the streets, but now it’s the Salafists.

The problem for the Islamists in the Middle East is that they now have to take a position: whether they side with the Salafists or they clash with them. Of course, they are trying to avoid making a choice. It’s clear in Tunisia that they are divided. Some people of the Ennahda [Tunisian Islamist party that came to power after elections last year] don’t want to clash with the Salafists and others say it’s time to send the police and the army. The same thing is happening in Libya and Egypt. The Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt already sent the army against the jihadists.

RFE/RL: Some political commentators and Islamic scholars have suggested that depictions of the Prophet Muhammad are against the spirit of Islam. Is this correct?

Roy: It’s an interpretation. In history, you have had a lot of pictures of Prophet Muhammad. It’s not true that there is a general ban on pictures of Muhammad. It’s a Salafist view and now the Salafist view is dominant. But if you look at miniatures in the Middle Ages, you had a lot of representations of the Prophet. The story that there is no representation of the Prophet in Islam just doesn’t exist; it’s a modern invention.

You can find a huge iconography of Muslim representations of the Prophet, including in Pakistan, by the way. Until the 1960s, you could buy a picture of Muhammad in the shops in Pakistan. It’s only a recent kind of Salafist interpretation.

RFE/RL: There have been violent protests across Afghanistan over the film. You say this is a relatively new phenomenon in the country. What has changed in Afghan society that perceived Western insults can often result in violence?

Roy: I think in Afghanistan, we have a huge crisis of identity. Nationalism has been undermined by the ethnic divides and the country has been at civil war for more than 30 years. So this kind of emotional relationship to Islam — [compared to] an abstract version of Islam that traditionally [defines] Afghan Islam — is a way to tie an identity.

It’s also to oppose Western troops, whose status is very ambiguous in the eyes of the Afghans. On the one hand, they came to the defense of Afghanistan. But on the other, they are occupation troops.

So, Islam is here, in a sense, precisely to depoliticize the situation and to avoid thinking in real political terms and in ethnic terms, which is the key issue in Afghanistan.

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(2) Tariq Ali: The West ‘Created This Monster’

As the Muslim world continues to react, sometimes violently, to a film, “The Innocence of Muslims,” that portrays the Prophet Muhammad in a negative light, observers are weighing in on the reasons behind Muslim anger.

One is Tariq Ali, a veteran Pakistani-born British military historian, author, and journalist who has written extensively on political Islam and the Middle East. He tells RFE/RL correspondent Frud Bezhan that the current situation is blowback from decades of U.S. policy.

RFE/RL: Why has “The Innocence of Muslims” caused so much violent outrage? Is there a historical, religious, or political explanation as to why defamation of religion in the Muslim world often leads to violence, as opposed to other regions and religions?

Tariq Ali: The question you have to ask is why these cartoons and films are being made at this particular time. Why weren’t they made for most of the last century? The reasons these films are being made is precisely because of the occupation of the Muslim world by the United States and its allies, which have created an atmosphere of extreme Islamophobia.

You have, sometimes, liberals — but usually the right and extreme right — which feel it’s a good thing to carry on provoking [extremists in the Middle East]. That’s why they do it. It has nothing to do with free speech. The Muslim reaction to it is the same reasons that these guys do it. They feel occupied, they’re angry, and the Arab world is in turmoil. So they react in that way. You can’t isolate this from world politics.

RFE/RL: There seems to be a general assumption that depictions of the Prophet Muhammad are “un-Islamic.” How much of this is true and how much is it a myth created by extremist elements?

Ali: A questioning of Prophet Muhammad is not tolerated. There is a form of idolatry of the Prophet that is actually against the spirit of Islam, which is totally opposed to idolatry. So, people react to these attacks on the Prophet as an attack on their culture. They know they’re being provoked and they get provoked.

In the past, I have written that the best way to stop this would be to ignore these things, but the world is too volatile now.

RFE/RL: You say local grievances in the Muslim world against the West, and in particular against the United States, have a major role in the violent demonstrations. If so, what events have led to this?

Ali: You have a situation today where the United States occupies a number of countries in the Arab world [like] Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Libya, which is a NATO protectorate, and they are very close to the military in Egypt. So that creates a new mood, which is why people react in this way.

Without a doubt [local grievances against the West play a big part in these protests]. The religion has been politicized. The reason for that, of course, is that during the Cold War the United States was backing most of these [extremist Islamist] groups to fight communism all over the world, especially in the Muslim world. Wahhabi preachers were sent with American approval by Saudi Arabia to create what we now know as political Islam. They did that and now they are paying the price for it. [The West] created this monster.

RFE/RL: Will these violent demonstrations in reaction to the defamation of Islam continue? How do you see it evolving going forward?

Ali: The way forward is to create a way of life, not just in the Muslim world but the world at large in which people have some stake in the world in which they live.

At the moment, increasingly democracy is being hollowed out in the Western world, leave alone anywhere else. So people, to fill the vacuum, some move towards nationalism, as in China. And others move towards religion, like in the Arab world.

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3. Charles Kurzman: ‘Clash Of Hatreds’ Not Representative Of Muslim Society

As the Muslim world continues to react, sometimes violently, to a film, “The Innocence of Muslims,” that portrays the Prophet Muhammad in a negative light, observers are weighing in on the reasons behind Muslim anger. One is Charles Kurzman, a leading authority on Muslim movements and the author of “The Missing Martyrs,” a book that argues that the radical minority does not represent Muslims as a whole.

In an interview with RFE/RL correspondent Golnaz Esfandiari, Kurzman argues that what we are seeing is an opportunistic “clash of hatreds.”

RFE/RL: How much is this rage orchestrated and fanned by a small group of extremists and how much is spontaneous?

Charles Kurzman: I have no inside knowledge about either the moviemakers or about the protests against the movie. But as an outsider, it seems to me that we have seen this whole [thing] before. Somebody says something outrageous and offensive, other people take offense and engage in protests that turn violent on occasion, and that just reinforces the animosity and hatred on both sides.

It seems so sad that we are forced to watch [these same scenes] over and over, while most of us just want to get along.

RFE/RL: As you said, these kinds of protests have happened before. Some observers in the region have said that extremists are behind them and are co-opting them for their own interests. Why do some Muslims get provoked so easily?

Kurzman: I think in all countries there are small groups that get provoked easily. We have basically a conspiracy of fools, people who are using whatever pretext, whatever hatred and misunderstanding to mobilize and misrepresent other people around the world that they dislike, and this is just another example.

I don’t think Muslims are more sensitive than others. I think there are small groups in every country who are very sensitive to insult and who organize protests when they feel they’re under attack. Look at the numbers, the numbers of these protests; they’re still relatively small. We’re talking a few thousands of people in countries with populations of dozens of millions.

Compare those protests to the size of protests during the Arab Spring uprising. These are very tiny protests and yet they get international global media coverage and they appear to be more important than they actually are.

RFE/RL: Some are framing this as a clash of cultures, a clash of civilizations. What are your thoughts on this?

Kurzman: No, I call this a clash of hatreds. Most people do not hate one another and yet these small groups who do hate seem to be able to grab the headlines and get everybody’s attention. Let’s keep in mind that protesting an insult is perfectly legal in most countries, including the United States, and if people want to hold signs or even burn flags, they’re allowed to do that. That is called free speech, and so I do not mind when groups organize to protest a movie. I think that is a sign of political participation.

Now, when those protests turn violent, of course, then a crime has been committed and I oppose that. But to give these filmmakers the level of importance that these protests have done is almost a gift — a gift by extremists from one side to the extremists on the other side — and it’s a gift that keeps circulating among the extremes.

But most of us are not in the extremes; most of us just want to get along. And I think that is the saddest part of this episode: that the large majority, they may disagree on political matters, they may disagree culturally, but we don’t hate each other. Let’s refocus our energies on understanding and on peaceful pursuits rather than on conflict.

RFE/RL: Do you see a change in the Western response to such reactions? In the case of Salman Rushdie’s book “The Satanic Verses,” the response from politicians and publishers in the West was an immediate, strong defense of freedom of speech. In this case, the response has been much more measured. Are we seeing a concession to Muslim sensitivities?

Kurzman: Remember, we now live in a different time and we’ve just witnessed these uprisings around the Arab world that show a huge interest in political participation throughout the Middle East, and I think we are right in saying that we support those movements and want to have good relations around the world. I don’t call this a concession.

I believe this is a recognition that people’s political opinions may differ from our own and if it’s important enough to them to go out and hold signs and protest, that is their right to do that.

RFE/RL: Is what we’re seeing also an indication that anti-Western sentiments are on the rise in the region?

Kurzman: I think there is a distinction. First of all, these again are very small protests, so I wouldn’t take them as a sign of underlying mass opinion. The second is that there are two sets of issues: One is a very widespread concern in the Middle East, and in many other countries around the world, that the United States is a country that has more than its share of power and influence around the world.

There’ve been numerous surveys that have documented these attitudes. That’s a political position; it’s not particularly a cultural position. There’s also, as you know, cultural differences. And I think those should not be dismissed, either. But the mainstream opinion in Muslim societies around the world is one of tolerance.

And we see through all sorts of forms and evidence, including surveys and election results, that the movements and parties and attitudes that desire coexistence and peacefulness far, far outweigh the movements that are in favor in violence and hatred. So that even though there may be severe political disagreement, that does not necessarily translate into violence.

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  1. #1 by monsterball on Sunday, 23 September 2012 - 2:05 am

    This post is for academics and professionals to read…understand and digest.
    Kopitiam fellas ….hawkers and ordinary clerks…factory workers…will find the post boring…and all they know….is the power of their votes…..that matters most.
    13th GE is predicted to be Nov.
    The gist of it all…..is the …corrupted leaders…dictators …devilish, evil cunning double headed snake leaders have all fallen….except in Malaysia.

  2. #2 by yhsiew on Sunday, 23 September 2012 - 7:03 am

    Violence on religion is not new. Even in the Middle Ages, there were crusades which led to massacre and martyrdom.

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