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Op-Ed: Western Anti-Muslim Attitudes Feed Resentment
Eleven years after the events which catalyzed the United States’ “war on terror” and a series of conflicts from Afghanistan to Syria, the release of the short film Innocence of Muslims stirred worldwide mass protests.
After three weeks the protests continue unrelenting. The political discourse has been dominated by radical demands for the hanging of Nacoula Besseley, the 55 year old producer of the movie and with demands for laws against blasphemy on one hand, and almost equally radical statements against any limitations to the freedom of speech and expression on the other.
Whether intended or unintended, the movie and the subsequent responses to it are bound to radicalize a new generation of young Muslims. The effect was foreseeable and one might want to ask who benefits.
Since the Mohammed cartoons in the Danish newspaper Jyllandsposten catalyzed worldwide protests in 2006 it has become a well-established fact that cultural insults and insults against Islam in the western entertainment industry and media have a greater capacity for stirring mass protests than military campaigns do.
A young married couple in Somalia will perceive a drone attack that kills members of a wedding party in Pakistan as a distant event. An insult on the prophet Mohammed on the other hand makes it easy for Muslims worldwide to identify personally and culturally with the insult. Regardless whether one belongs to a Sunni, Shia, Alewite, Druze or any other Muslim community, an insult on the prophet and Muslims per se is likely to be perceived as an insult on the heart of one’s cultural self and identity.
The response to a low budget movie like Innocence of Muslims would most likely have been very limited had it not been for the fact that Muslims have been systematically denigrated in Hollywood movies for decades. The Arab American scholar Dr. Jack Shaheen reviewed more than 1,000 movies and ascertained that more than 25 percent in one way or the other denigrate and scapegoat Arabs. Shaheen concludes in his book “Real Bad Arabs” that Hollywood deprives an entire people from their humanity.
Another Arab scholar, the Palestinian American Edward Said, coined the term “Orientalism” to describe how western culture stereotypes all cultures from the Middle East to East Asia.
The movie has had the potential to catalyze worldwide protests because it elicits the fact that western entertainment industry and media have been depriving entire peoples from their humanity for decades. The systematic stereotyping of Muslims creates the cognitive background for justifying illegal wars and the inhumane treatment of Muslims in wars and in captivity.
Many of the movies which portray aggressive US foreign policy and military campaigns positively while denigrating Muslims are produced with the support of the US Department of Defense.
It is not surprising that the protests are global, and that limitations on freedom of speech and expression are being demanded. Protesters, including Islamic scholars and religious leaders, elicit the fact that many western countries have stringent laws which prohibit the incitement of religious hatred. It has not escaped them that countries like Germany and France rigorously enforce laws that prohibit hateful statements against Jewish people while failing to apply the same laws when Muslims are denigrated and dehumanized.
If one argues for the universality of values such as the freedom of speech and expression, then why not apply this universality on issues such as “The Holocaust”? Why create laws against libel ? Can the problem be reduced to the simple statement that “ freedom of expression is a universal value, but some are more worthy of making an exception than others” ?
Intended or unintended, the not so innocent movie radicalized the cultural and political discourse and is bound to radicalize a new generation of young Muslims. Although the majority of the protests were peaceful and dignified expressions of outrage, many of them resulted in confrontations with police forces. The images of Muslim protesters being chased, beaten and in some instances killed by Muslim policemen have been transmitted throughout the world.
For many of the protesters, and especially for many of the young protesters the experience of conflict with the police will be a catalyzing experience. Some of the protesters will have lost friends or loved ones during clashes with police forces. Millions will have heard the reports about killed protesters in the media. The police authorities moderate governments have become the executioners and oppressors of those who protest for a just cause.
Terrorism experts such as the Iranian American Fathali M. Moghaddam describe perceived injustice and being deprived of influence in legitimate political grievances as some of the basic preconditions for the radicalization of terrorists. Others like Taylor and Louis describe the denigration of ones cultural self as one of the most significant contributing factors. Most terrorism experts agree that cultural factors play a significant role in the radicalization processes which lead to involvement in terrorism.
On 26 September Islamic leaders from Pakistan concluded a mammoth conference about the movie in Islamabad. The participants unanimously demanded the death penalty for everybody who has taken part in making the blasphemous movie. Others, like Shaikh Jamal Munib from the Philippines encouraged dialog and a society where Christians and Muslims can coexist peacefully.
With radical Islamic movements on standby, ready to recruit a new generation of Holy Warriors into terrorist organizations it is not surprising that even moderate Islamic leaders feel themselves pressured into making radical statements such as demanding the death penalty for everybody who was involved in making the movie.
Regardless whether it was intended or not, the not so innocent movie is radicalizing the political and religious discourse. It has most likely created a few thousand potential recruits who are ready to join exactly those organizations which express the very stereotypes that have been created by Hollywood. Some will end up in organizations with ties to intelligence agencies of those nations against whom they believe to wage a holy war. The senior security adviser to several US-Administrations Zbigniew Brzezinski boasted that he had created Al Qaeda. In the final equation it would be interesting to analyze the question: “Who benefits?”
(Christof Lehmann is a psychologist, Consultant in Politics, Behavior in Finance and Economics, Conflict Resolution, Peace Building and Reconciliation, Crisis Psychology and Public Relations.)