What do the widespread demonstrations against the anti-Islamic YouTube video “The Innocence of Muslims” teach us about the state of the world at this time in our history? Now that the hype has gone and the dust is beginning to settle around this episode it is a useful time to examine the lessons we can learn from the global Muslim protests against the film.
First, and foremost we need to once again make it unequivocally clear that the loss of innocent lives is to be condemned in the strongest terms. The depiction of the Prophet Muhammad in a negative and profane manner was a clear and deliberate provocation, but the sanctity of human life is a supreme value in Islam and nothing is worth the cost of a human life. No matter how offensive the video is deemed to be Muslims should not condone acts of revenge, especially when motivated by anger and rage. By choosing violence as a response, some Muslims have ironically and tragically betrayed the legacy, spirit & wisdom of the Prophet Muhammad who is described in the Qur’an as a source of “mercy, compassion and tenderness to the worlds (Q21:107).”
But how have the recent protests been similar or different to past protests against malicious provocations? Here lies our first lesson. Unlike previous protests against provocative depictions of the Prophet Muhammad, this time around the Muslim leadership in virtually all parts of the world called for peaceful protests and their advice was largely heeded. The Grand Mufti of Egypt, Shaykh Ali Gomaa, for example, called on Muslims in a CNN interview to show “patience and wisdom” in reacting to anti-Islam actions across the world. Moreover, research findings placed 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. The vast majority of this miniscule number of protesters were peaceful. It appears therefore that by and large Muslims are learning not to be provoked into violent protests by these agent provocateurs. This raises an intriguing question: Does the media trope of “Muslim Rage” not blow Muslim protests out of proportion and create an even deeper culture of anti-Islamic sentiment in the West?
I believe that this is indeed the case for some influential media outlets, see for example Newsweek’s Cover on 24 September 2012. This brings me to a disturbing second lesson from the recent media reporting of the unfortunate deaths resulting from the protests. It is hard not to notice, and be disturbed by, the vastly different reactions of the media whenever Americans or Europeans are killed, as opposed to when America and its NATO allies are doing the killing. From my own experience it is palpable that the mainstream media promotes a hierarchy of human life.
On Wednesday 12 September 2012, the U.S. Ambassador to Libya, J. Christopher Stevens, and three of his staff were killed by some protesters outside the US embassy in Benghazi. The event received wide scale media coverage. Four days later on Sunday 16 September 2012, a NATO airstrike in Afghanistan killed eight women and girls in the remote Laghman Province. This event was less widely covered in the global media.
The proximity of these two events made me hyper conscious of the fact that, in my capacity as chairperson of the Western Cape Religious Leaders Forum, and Imam of Claremont Main Road Mosque, I was approached by more than one media source to make a statement on the events at the Libyan embassy, but none of the media sources invited me to make a statement on the NATO killings four days later. It highlighted once again the selective way in which the media responds to and reports on events in which innocent people are killed. There is always an outpouring of rage and condemnation whenever American or European citizens are killed abroad, while responses to the more frequent killing and deaths of innocent men, women and children by US and NATO forces in all parts of the world, are much more muted. The latter killings and deaths are dismissed as ‘collateral damage’ and justified as ‘wars of aggression’ against ‘forces of terror’ and in the name of ‘restoring democratic regimes’.
The sombre lesson for me was the following. In our responses we must guard ourselves against becoming complicit in regarding deaths of innocent Americans or Europeans abroad as being more tragic and senseless than the deaths and killings of innocent Iraqi, Afghani or Yemeni citizens. We should be expressing our outrage equally if not more, at the deaths and killings of the many men, women and children who have lost their lives violently at the hands of US and NATO forces in the ongoing illegitimate ‘wars of invasion.’ Similarly we should also be expressing our outrage at the violent deaths of the many innocent people who are dying at the hands of small groups of extremists who are intent on maintaining instability in the region. The death of the Libyan Ambassador and his staff is as tragic and senseless as the killing of the eight Afghani women and children by NATO forces. There should be no ‘hierarchy of human life’ and there can never be any justification for the killing of innocent human beings.
This brings me to my third and last lesson. Those who insist on framing the protests simply within the debate over freedom of expression, ignore the complex structural injustices within the contexts in which the protests have occurred. A number of commentators and analysts such as Mark LeVine, Ramzy Baroud, and Husain Haqqani have been making this point cogently. Taking the social injustices within these contexts into account, the film served as a trigger for the unleashing of simmering grievances against the US interventions in the Middle East. It is instructive to note that most of the violent protests occurred in contexts such as Libya, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Yemen, places where the US and NATO have been engaging in ‘wars of invasion’ in the name of ‘promoting democratic regimes’ that have left scores of people killed as “collateral damage.’ The ‘cost of war’ project at Brown University in the USA estimates that since 9/11 the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan have cost almost 225,000 lives and almost eight million people have been displaced as refugees.
The lesson is that the protests were much more than merely a response to an anti-Islam video. It was also about the release of pent-up frustrations and anger at the terror of living under occupation and daily threats of stealth drone attacks. In line with this broader perspective of the protests, Ramzy Baroud makes an interesting argument by pointing out that protestors are not necessarily Muslim extremists, but rather ordinary people for whom the attack on the Prophet Muhammad represents a final act of humiliation amidst their daily humiliation by US and NATO occupation forces.
There are many other lessons that can be learnt from the recent protests against the anti-Islam YouTube video. I have only highlighted three. 1) Muslims are learning not to be provoked into violent protests by agent provocateurs.; 2) the mainstream media is complicit in promoting a hierarchy of human life which regards deaths of innocent Americans or Europeans abroad as being more tragic and senseless than the deaths and killings of innocent Iraqi, Afghani, Pakistani or Yemeni citizens; and 3) The US and NATO’s so-called “war against terror” and military interventions are generating a belligerent environment in countries with Muslim majority populations. It is this lethal environment which fosters extremism and violence.
Rashied Omar is a regular contributor to There is Power in the Blog.