Much has already been said and written about the wave of protests about the anti-Islam trashy trailer ‘The Innocence of Muslims’. So as expected, many so-called Muslim ‘leaders’ have sprung up to explain, contextualise, restrain and advise. Some are even offering apologies to the wider society about the actions of the radical few who as always succeed in making Islam itself the subject of scrutiny here and not the amateurish, poorly produced ‘video’ that most of them have not even seen. And an equal number of so-called experts and commentators have also offered, to everyone and anyone who cares to receive, their well-informed nuanced and sophisticated analyses. After all, this is ‘Islam’ and ‘Muslims’ we are talking about, and no matter how simple or complex the issue is the same banal analysis can always somehow do the trick.
But let me start by saying that I did see this ‘clip’, which is so badly put together that it does not warrant us applying the terms ‘movie’, ‘trailer’, video’ or any related creative term, as it does not really amount to anything artistic or creative for that matter. And YES, it highly offensive, deliberately inflammatory, and visually unpleasant that in normal circumstances it would not and should not receive any type of attention. To be blunt, who would not be offended when the ‘clip’ portrays their religion as a fraud and their prophet as sexual predator, paedophile and blood thirsty megalomaniac of the worst possible kind? And all is done cheaply and in the coarsest of forms. And that is why such trash does not even warrant serious critique.
And this brings us to the wave of protests that started in North Africa and the Middle East and quickly spread to North America, Europe, Asia and made it all the way to Sydney, Australia. Why do some Muslims, in Muslim countries or in émigré societies, react so angrily to such events? Let’s remember that similar reactions also took place in the wake of the Danish cartoons, the desecration of Muslim sites, and most recently the burning of the Koran in Afghanistan. So can we assume it is just about the offensive act itself? Or is there an underlying issue that we need to account for.
The first point to be made here is that whilst we all uphold the fundamental right of freedom of speech and expression, there has to be clear legal boundaries that prevent the spread of deliberately offensive materials that can have adverse outcomes for society at large. This is a delicate question that requires legal experts more than social and political scientists, but common sense dictates that the rights bestowed upon citizens of any democratic polity should bring with them certain responsibilities. And there are precedents for this kind of approach most notably ‘Holocaust denial’ which is punishable by law in a number of countries. So here to hide behind the ‘freedom of speech’ mantra should no longer be an excuse for anyone from any faith or cultural background to deliberately offend religious feelings in an unrestrained manner. Indeed, no true believer – irrespective of their religious denominations, would ever accept offensive representations of their fundamental beliefs and should be protected by the rule of law from such indecent attacks.
The second point relates to the excessive and unwarranted violent reaction we witnessed in a number of cities and which sadly resulted in the loss of innocent lives in Libya, Tunisia and elsewhere. To protest peacefully is a fundamental right so cherished in democratic societies, but to venture into violent aggressive behaviour is totally unwarranted and defeats the purpose of showing the true nature of Muslims and thereby correct the inaccurate depiction in the offending ‘clip’. Sadly, a deep sense of alienation and injustice and a perception that ‘Western’ governments have themselves engaged in anti-Muslim practices (think the War in Iraq, the Palestinian problem and so on…), means that the protestors are not in fact protesting about the ‘movie’ which they have not even watched, but are wanting to express their anger and affirm their Muslim identity which they believe is under attack. Many of these issues pertaining to global politics and race relations and how they play out domestically among Muslim youth are tackled more systematically in a recent book I co-edited on ‘Muslims in the West and the Challenges of Belonging’. But what is most disappointing about the recent events is that the only beneficiaries are the people who produced and made this ‘video’. They could not have hoped for a better outcome in terms of giving their outrageous claims about Islam and Muslims some form of credibility that Muslims are inherently violent and intolerant. It would not matter that only a small minority took to the streets, and to be precise a few hundreds (perhaps a few thousands in places like Pakistan) out of the 1.3 billion believers worldwide.
In my view the responsibility of Muslim ‘leaders’ should not simply be about reacting to such events and offering apologies on behalf of all Muslim Australians, but to be more proactive in identifying these radical elements within their communities and engage them in meaningful dialogue and education programs. It is heartening to hear that some within the Muslim community are admitting that they had been remiss in the past and were planning to do more of this bridge building in the future. Otherwise, the same ugly scenes will be dominating our TV screens sooner than we would like to think.