‘Innocence of Muslims’ and the manufacture of outrage

Danyal Kazim explores the violent reaction to the YouTube video in Pakistan – starting with trying to access it from there.

In September 2012 international media broadcast disturbing news about social unrest in Muslim countries in response to the production of a blasphemous short film, Innocence of Muslims, on YouTube. In various parts of the Muslim world fierce riots erupted which resulted in the deaths of over 50 protesters. Hundreds were injured, dozens of shops were burnt down, vehicles were set alight and cash machines and schools looted. In several Muslim countries across Asia and Africa, raging mobs attempted to march on US embassies while political and religious leaders demanded formal apologies from the US government. One minister in Pakistan even set a bounty on the head of the producer and writer of the film.

I was quite sure that the people who lost their lives and property had no part in the manufacture or distribution of the film. Since most of the victims were protesting against the film, it is safe to infer that they had no sympathy for it. Protesters were killing their own – but why?

What can cause deaths and such an enormous amount of violence? These vehement reactions and organised protests against the film, both on the streets and on social media, made me curious. Yet in Pakistan, all internet links to the film had been taken down and it could no longer be accessed. The government had banned the film on the grounds of its potential to endanger law and order by enraging the masses. YouTube itself refused to restrict access to the video so in response, the Pakistani government banned YouTube, thus depriving people of a crucial social media channel.

I spent hours reading descriptions of the film. Just like promotional teasers, these descriptions only make potential viewers more curious. After a week devoted to following most of the news about the film I knew its highlights without even watching it. It was the work of an American with a Coptic Christian background; therefore the entire American nation was responsible. The prophet Muhammad was insulted in the worst possible way, shown as a ruthless murderer and a paedophile. Most of the commentary described the depiction as “unimaginable”.

I desperately tried to access the film through proxy sites and ended up downloading some viruses in the process. After a huge ordeal and running several antivirus programs on my computer, I finally saw the film. I was disappointed. Instead of a film it was a 14-minute clip. The dialogue, script, production, editing and acting were of such low quality that I wondered if I would have wasted any time watching this if the level of opposition to the film had not made me curious. The clip did not deserve the notoriety or infamy that it earned. As a matter of fact, it did not deserve any response aside from pity for the sick mind that conceived it. Innocence of Muslims could have been gracefully ignored.

The purpose of the film was to offend and incite violence. In fact, the film was not offensive as it merely reflected the mental state of its creator rather than the prophet Muhammad himself. The very edifice of religion is belief. The religion of one is the myth of another. Since most religions emerged in pre-modern societies, they have components of pre-modern belief systems that in modern times are unintelligible. It is very easy to ridicule another person’s religion; for instance, will anyone believe in the immaculate birth of Christ outside the fold of Christianity and Islam? The creation of Ganesh where the god Shiva mistakenly beheads his young son and transplants an elephant head onto his dead son’s body? Buddha’s achievement of enlightenment? Try to use creativity about these phenomena as a non-believer and anyone can produce something equally offensive.

I also came to understand that most of the Muslims protesting did not know about the clip’s existence or about its content for months after its appearance on YouTube. Organised responses to the film were not organic or immediate. This delay is interesting. The responses took time and seemed planned and political. If we are to believe that protests were organised, then we must ask who brought protesters on to the streets? Violent protests get more media coverage than peaceful ones. Although many Muslim governments banned the material there were social media campaigns that ignited public sentiment. The film provided extremist Muslim organisations in Europe an opportunity for interest aggregation and interest articulation. These organisations utilised the issue to provide support for their existence and increase their clout. Some governments and religious groups in Muslim countries also used this issue to gain popularity.

Protests can take many forms. In Pakistan, if the general public had been able to see the film, the non-violent responses would have been more visible than the violent ones. The peaceful silent majority of Muslims might have written about it or might have engaged in dialogue. Many would have liked to contribute to the debates about hate speech, blasphemy, inter-religious contempt and violence rather than becoming a part of all these concepts physically.

I recognise four stages in the vicious cycle. First, there is always someone who hurts the religious sentiments of Muslims. The easiest way to hurt the feelings of Muslims is by insulting the prophet Muhammad. This is often done through some odious remarks regarding his polygamy and choice of wives. Second, Muslim governments ban the blasphemous content and ask Western governments for a formal apology, which they may or may not receive. In either case, I do not understand the utility of an apology. Third, some Muslim religious organisations will continue using these issues for organising protests that will in turn bring these organisations into the media limelight. The protests unleash fatal violence, as law enforcement is weak in most of the countries where the protests occur. Fourth, the Western media will continue portraying Muslims as loutish people who cannot stand freedom of expression. After all, the West does not mind if someone ridicules Jesus Christ. This intolerance to sarcasm brings out the true radical colour of Muslim societies.

I will end by saying that there is no panacea to this problem. Blasphemous material has become a political and economic industry. It triggers a chain of events that empowers and provides opportunities to people who benefit from these controversies. Due to the principle of demand and supply we should expect more such events in future.

Danyal Kazim is the pseudonym of a Pakistani student at Oxford.

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Free Speech Debate is a research project of the Dahrendorf Programme for the Study of Freedom at St Antony's College in the University of Oxford. www.freespeechdebate.ox.ac.uk

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