Saturday, 15 September 2012


Whereas the Qantara website used the anniversary of 9/11 as an opportunity to assess the progress in  democratizing the Muslim world, in the very same week a YouTube clip of an obscure, badly edited and poorly acted alleged parody of the Prophet Muhammad led to virulent reactions in a number of countries in North Africa and the Middle East against perceived anti-Islamist conspiracies orchestrated by the West.

The essay The End of the "Anti-Thesis" argues that 'After a decade, 9/11 is over. Its main legacy – the idea that Islam is fundamentally opposed to Western democratic values – has finally lost its power of persuasion. What is making this antithesis untenable is the Arab Spring, which is revealing rather different sides to both Muslims and what the West has stood for in the past'. It surveys the rise of Islamophobia fed by rightist politicians in Europe and debates among academics on promoting national culture and the extent to which foreign contributions must be recognized:
And so the message of 9/11 has permeated political and intellectual discourse, parties and voters as well as scholars and opinion makers. Strikingly, its most vocal proponents have been anti-Islamists as well as Muslim extremists. If there is anything that al-Qaeda and Geert Wilders actually agree on, it is that there is a deep-seated Clash of Civilisations – that Islam and the West are indeed fundamentally opposed. And between them we have all been captured by that theme.
While this may have been an accurate statement of accounts for a number of years, now it must be balanced against the seismic shifts in the political landscape of the Arab world over the past two years:
Quite unexpectedly, the claim of the fundamental antithesis is ceasing to sound so self-evident. All of a sudden, the drum of Islam versus Western values has begun to lose its beat. It looks as if 9/11, after all, was not the start of a whole new era, but merely the beginning of one decade – a decade that is now coming to an end.

What made this transformation happen is not the death of Osama Bin Laden – his leadership had withered long before he was shot. Nor was it caused by Barack Obama – his speeches have promised outreach and reconciliation, but his foreign policy yet has to deliver. What has really undermined the 9/11 antithesis are the popular uprisings of the current Arab Spring. It is these revolutions that have shown that the dichotomy of Islam and Western values does not actually hold.

Unfortunately events in the second week of September 2012 appear to set things back again. It is not inconceivable that governments in North American and European capitals will get second thoughts after having taken leave of autocrats they had propped up for decades and the -- by and large reactive, not pro-active --enthusiasm with which they greeted 'people's power' in the Middle East. This is also corroborated by Bassam Haddad's much darker assessment for Jadaliyyah

Although it is still a matter of debate who exactly is behind the amateurish 'The Innocence of Muslims', in Egypt, Libya, and Yemen, rumors that the clip was the work of Israeli and American film-makers led to large-scale protests, attempts to storm the embassies of the USA and European countries, and eventually  the tragic death of several American diplomats, including the ambassador to Libya. From a detached and dispassionate point of view it is puzzling how such a badly edited and poorly acted little film can result in such violent responses. At face value it only appears to show how very sensitive Muslims have been become to any media coverage or depictions that are perceived as anti-Islamic. But is that really all there is to it?

'Innocence of Muslims' screenshot
The fact that in various Arab countries 'Innocence of Muslims' was immediately associated with America is certainly a worrying indication of strong anti-Western sentiments simmering just below the surface among large parts of the population, which are ready to explode at any moment. Evidently, it takes only the slightest provocation to ignite these negative feelings, leading to developments that quickly spiral out of control.

However, the fact that the most heated responses came from three Arab countries which have recently experienced violent regime changes seems to me more relevant than the fact that they are also Muslim countries. Yes, there have also been protests as far away as Southeast Asia, but Indonesian Muslim leaders, for example, have stated that the film does not deserve any attention. Therefore, it appears more likely that accusations of anti-Islamic conspiracies must be understood as a catalyst for political frustrations among the population with the way things have been going since the disappearance of the dictators. In that case religion can NOT be considered the root cause of the current frenzy affecting the mobs in Cairo, Benghazi and Sanaa. Unfortunately, it is often very difficult for political actors in the Muslim world to keep these things apart and for outside observers to interpret developments correctly.

The Religion Dispatches Website has made an effort to establish the identity of the maker of this film, while Bruce Lawrence, a respected historian of religion specializing in Islam, wrote a first measured commentary under the title 'YouTube Terrorism', assessing the effects the information era is having on political and religious debates. Different angles are provided by Omid Safi, in what one commentator described as a  twelve-point 'manifesto for sanity', and by Juan Cole in his widely read blog Informed Comment.

Tom Holland
With heated mass protests raging across the Muslim world, a domestic controversy in the United Kingdom on another instance of perceived anti-Islamic media coverage quickly disappeared from the headlines. As embassies and consulates were torched and diplomats met with a violent death in Egypt and Libya, Britain's Channel 4 pulled the repeat airing of a documentary on early Islamic history after writer and presenter Tom Holland had received threats. 

Although some media erroneously reported the programme's title as 'Islam: The Untold Truth', what Islam: The Untold Story tried to do was to present a thesis developed in the 1970s by a number of historians, at the time based at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), but since then transferred to Princeton. Their point of departure that since there is no indigenous written records dating back to the first centuries of the Islamic era, therefore Islam itself did not yet exist, has been challenged as selective and one-sided. After all, the fact that documentary evidence in Arabic has not survived does not mean it never existed. Moreover, circumstantial evidence can also be pieced together from archaeological remains or materials from the surrounding areas such as the Byzantine Empire and Persia. In any case, from the perspective of professional historians and other academics working on Middle Eastern history it remains an interesting hypothesis to put to the test, but the documentary was not very successful in bringing that particular point across; that it was a scholarly exercise by a number of academics which has met with increasing criticism and rejection by their peers.

Unfortunately, the result was once again what the newspaper The Independent called 'another unholy row about Islam'. Fortunately, a number of Muslim commentators also offered critical introspections and suggestions for more constructive responses when such issues arise: 
"It's not anger," says Mohammed Ansar, a Muslim commentator who has been a prominent online critic of Mr Holland's documentary. "Anger is what we're seeing in the Middle East. What we've seen in the UK has been much more measured."
Inayat Bunglawala, chair of Muslims4UK, agrees. "I have no time for those who say Channel 4 shouldn't broadcast such a programme," he says. "Every broadcaster and historian has the right to examine the historical origins of any faith. But our objections were more about the quality of the documentary itself and the arguments Tom made."

Tehmina Kazi, from British Muslims for Secular Democracy, is critical of Islam: The Untold Story but says many Muslim groups are too quick to move into an overtly hostile position whenever anything controversial airs about their faith. [...] "The default response was complain, complain, complain."She believes Islamic faith groups need to get better at responding with reasoned debate – something she felt many have done successfully over the Channel 4 documentary. "Respond, don't react," she says.
Evidently, it is possible for these debates to take place in a civilized atmosphere and on a level where sensitivities can be articulated in such a way that both sides are educated about the others' viewpoints. In spite of this week's atrocities in Benghazi, perhaps we have reached the end of the Anti-Thesis...