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On the islamization of a global conflict

By Thijl Sunier Just over a week ago, after a period of relative silence, we could witness the start of another mediated Islam-hype with heated debates, demonstrations and (verbal and physical) violence. The apparent cause this time was the trailer on YouTube of an obscure movie titled “Innocence of Muslims” about the prophet Mohammed. The movie, in which Mohammed is depicted as a violent child molester, a rapist, a con-man and a homosexual, is the product of an obscure anti-Islam activist in the United States. The movie was designed to provoke Muslims deliberately by insulting Mohammed, much in the same way as the mad priest in Florida who burnt the Quran a couple of years ago. After the very-hard-to-find trailer was released, there was a small demonstration in Cairo in which the movie was mentioned along with other grievances against the US. It became a global issue only after an attack on the American embassy in Benghazi in Libya in which the ambassador was killed. Not very surprisingly this aroused strong reactions and a lot of media attention around the world, whereupon the protest spread to other countries. American magazines published grotesque cover images of angry mobs and raging Muslims. The whole circus of Islam critiques was mobilized to express their deep worries about the ‘ever increasing influence of radical Islam across the globe’.

It is remarkable to observe how quickly and relatively easy the commonly invoked discursive infrastructure of reactions and counter-reactions in such kinds of events is revived and repeated. The mediated sequence of public performances follows a basic script in which the same the (rhetorical) questions are posed and the same conclusions are drawn. With every new event this script becomes more established and more predictable.

On the 18th of September I watched a discussion on the German television dedicated to the event. It was a very informative discussion because it presented in a nutshell the dominant narrative that circulates globally. The participants in the debate are the ‘usual suspects’ performing a role in a drama called ‘should we be fearful of Islam?’ There is the senior orientalist who argues that the cause of all this dates centuries back to the 18th century Saudi Islamic scholar Mohammed ibn Abd al-Wahhab. Then there is the pious Muslima who states that only a small group of radicals use violence and that the majority of Muslims thinks differently even if they feel insulted by the movie. There is the journalist of the mainstream German newspaper who states that it is about the clash between freedom of speech and freedom of religion, being absolutely certain that radical Islam is gaining ground. There is the self-proclaimed ‘ex-Muslim’ (former member of a Salafi group in Germany) who knows ‘from the inside’ that it is the duty of all Muslims to hate (and preferably kill) all non-Muslims. There is the left-wing politician who pleas for a close cooperation between moderate Muslims and non-Muslims to overcome radicalism and to avoid schism. Finally there is the right-wing politician who stresses the need for more security measures. It is the repetition of strokes in a continuous play without much prospect for getting much further.

The basic feature of the script that is followed in these debates is that a global, very complex conflict is reduced to a simplified chain of causes in which the explanation boils down to theology and affect: insulting the prophet Mohammed causes rage among Muslims because Islam prescribes them to do so. There is a mutually reinforcing basic consensus among all these different voices that the conflict is about Islamic reasoning and sacred duties.

Those who question this simplistic explanation have a hard time because they have to argue against a dominant narrative. On discussion sites and blogs we find a number of very good analyses of the complexities of the events, but they are ignored largely by mainstream media. Fortunately things do not remain the same completely, however. The more these mediated hypes become predictable standard narratives (the next one is coming up in France as we speak), the more journalists become fed up with it. This is a good sign in my view.

Thijl Sunier is full professor in Cultural Anthropology (VU University Amsterdam). His specializations are  Religion (islam, politics and islam, leedership, young people and and islam), migration, ethnicity and nation formation, European History and Turkey. Read more articles by or related to Thijl Sunier here.


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  2. Victor Victor

    The professor, in his infinite wisdom, forgets to mention one of the most fundamental things, namely that the movie is perceived as a simple act of blasphemy. The Qur’an is a source of inspiration for hundreds of millions of Muslims around the world and provides guiding principles regarding religious, social and personal questions of faith. Before accepting contemporary postmodern theory we can do a little bit of research ourselves to understand what is considered an appropriate response to perceived acts of blasphemy, according to the teachings of the Qur’an, the word of God. Obviously we are no Qur’an experts like Sunier and it is not 100% scientific, but it is still very insightful in combination with contemporary postmodern theory as presented here above.

    Islamic forums contain all kind of discussions on what constitutes an appropriate response to acts of blasphemy. When reading forums we can find many responses including peaceful ones that are fully within the boundaries of the law. However the frequency in which violence and force is mentioned as option depending on the context and type of insult is surprisingly high. When it comes to blasphemy the Qur’an itself explicitly speaks of punishment in relation to those who make mischief in opposition to God and Muhammad. Anything ranging from ”execution”, ” crucifixion”, “cutting off hands or feeds” or “exile from the country” can be found within the teachings of the Qur’an, One sura is quoted particularly often within this context:

    “The punishment of those who wage war against Allah and His Messenger, and strive with might and main for mischief through the land is: execution, or crucifixion, or the cutting off of hands and feet from opposite sides, or exile from the land: that is their disgrace in this world, and a heavy punishment is theirs in the Hereafter;”
    —Qur’an, sura 5 (Al-Ma’ida), ayah 33[87]

    Scary, but the Koran is the word of God, so we should not take this lightly. There seems to be an interesting distinction between blasphemy towards God (Allah) or Muhammad the prophet of Allah. The former is perfectly capable of defending himself in the hereafter, but blasphemy acts that violate Mohammed, should be treated by “right of Man”. The person committing blasphemy must seek forgiveness from the person insulted. However, in the case of an insult of Muhammad, the Muslim community is considered to be under obligation to avenge the insult, because the possibility of forgiveness expired upon the death of Muhammad.

    When it comes questions of what constitutes acts of blasphemy we get some interesting insights. On some forums it is suggested that merely neglecting the teachings of the Qur’an, or imposing/making new religious orders/laws can be considered an act of blasphemy (e.g. Western or democratic law). This is consistent with the protests where people in the West seem to find it hard to understand that there are riots and protests against Western regimes that clearly did not produce the materials themselves. However, representing a country with a law system that is blasphematic in nature that provides a platform for these types of materials to be legally produced, gives plenty of reason to be angry and should be acted upon. Luckily Western leaders seem to fully understand this and publicly apologize, so there is plenty of hope for change the future.

    Media, politics and simplified model’s of truth as described in the article by the professor obviously play a role in the escalation or globalization of conflicts. However posts that completely ignore Islamic theory, or fail to provide any insights what so ever on Islamic claims, like how to respond to perceived acts of blasphemy, fall short in trying to understand anything about Islamisation of a global conflict. Instead we get a vague post that fits in perfectly in postmodern theory and political correctness from the multicultural elite: “Media runs some sort of standard script and people don’t seem to understand the complexity of the matter”. Kudos to Sunier.

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