Anti-American (and anti-Israeli) riots throughout the Middle East, supposedly in reaction to a low-budget, obscure, 14 minute anti-Muslim film made by a Coptic Christian of Egyptian origin, have “spread” over the last several days from Libya and Egypt to Yemen, Tunisia, Gaza, Morocco, Kashmir, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Indonesia, and Sudan.
The “rage” which erupted is reminiscent of similar violent responses to the threat by a fringe U.S. pastor to burn a Koran in 2010, which resulted in riots and the death of at least 20 people. This incident is also reminiscent, of course, of the Muhammad cartoons controversy in 2005-2006 which resulted in over 200 dead worldwide.
A considerable amount of media coverage of the latest violence has focused not on the rioters themselves but on the film maker, now in hiding, whose clip is said to have “angered”, enraged, “incited” (even “goaded“) the mobs into such behavior.
It’s difficult, however, not to view the reaction to one extremely low-budget racist anti-Muslim video in the context of the immense volume of often state-sponsored antisemitic incitement across the Middle East.
Al-Shatat (“The Diaspora”) is a $5.1 million, 30-part “mini-series” produced by state controlled Syrian television. It was broadcast during Ramadan in 2003 by Hezbollah’s satellite television network available to millions of viewers throughout the Middle East and was also shown in Iran in 2004 and in Jordan during 2005 on Al-Mamnou.
The film, based in part on The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, depicts a classic anti-Semitic blood libel. A Rabbi, played by an Arab actor, directs a member of his synagogue to help him:
1) kidnap the son of his Christian neighbor;
2) bring the boy to the synagogue;
3) slit the boy’s throat;
4) drain the boy’s blood into a basin;
5) use the blood to make Passover matzoh bread;
6) serve the matzoh to the members of the synagogue.
Here’s a clip
Another grossly antisemitic mini-series, “Horseman without a horse“, produced in Egypt and also based on ‘The Protocols’, which first aired in 2002, was re-broadcast during Ramadan in 2012, on Egyptian television.
While there were condemnations by Jewish leaders, there was no rioting or any manner of violent reaction in response to either film.
However, these widely viewed shows represent merely two examples of the obscene portrayal of Jews and Judaism seen routinely in Arab and Muslim newspapers, magazines, caricatures, websites, TV news, radio, documentaries, films and educational materials.
While Jews and Zionists are often accused of “silencing debate” when they merely criticize their opponents in the media or engage in political lobbying to advance their interests, rarely is Islamist inspired rioting, in reaction to a mere insult, interpreted similarly as an effort – through the implicit threat of future violence – to silence their critics.
Moreover, since the riots have begun, American officials have bent over backwards to denounce the film, thus being fooled by the radicals’ trick.
Husain Haqqani argued the following today in the Wall Street Journal:
“Insults, real or hyped, are not the problem. At the heart of Muslim street violence is the frustration of the world’s Muslims over their steady decline for three centuries, a decline that has coincided with the rise and spread of the West’s military, economic and intellectual prowess.
During the 800 years of Muslim ascendancy beginning in the eighth century…Muslims did not riot to protest non-Muslim insults against Islam or its prophet. There is no historical record of random attacks against non-Muslim targets in retaliation for a non-Muslim insulting Prophet Muhammad.
…violent responses to perceived injury are not integral to Islam. A religion is what its followers make it, and Muslims opting for violence have chosen to paint their faith as one that is prone to anger. Frustration with their inability to succeed in the competition between nations also has led some Muslims to seek symbolic victories.
For Islamists, wrath against the West is the basis for their claim to the support of Muslim masses, taking attention away from societal political and economic failures.
For example, the 57 member states of the Organization of Islamic Conference account for one-fifth of the world’s population but their combined gross domestic product is less than 7% of global output—a harsh reality for which Islamists offer no solution.
Even after recent developments that were labeled the Arab Spring, few Muslim-majority countries either fulfill—or look likely to—the criteria for freedom set by the independent group Freedom House. Mainstream discourse among Muslims blames everyone but themselves for this situation. The image of an ascendant West belittling Islam with the view to eliminate it serves as a convenient explanation for Muslim weakness.
Once the Muslim world embraces freedom of expression, it will be able to recognize the value of that freedom even for those who offend Muslim sensibilities. More important: Only in a free democratic environment will the world’s Muslims be able to debate the causes of their powerlessness, which stirs in them greater anger than any specific action on the part of Islam’s Western detractors.”
Those in the media and elsewhere who focus on the creator of one crudely made film – rather than on the behavior of those engaging in self-destructive, anti-democratic behaviour - are unwittingly emboldening those reactionary forces unable to reconcile themselves with the basic precepts of liberalism and modernity, thus consigning millions to continued underdevelopment and backwardness.
Rioting and violence on the streets of Benghazi, Cairo, Tunis, Sanaa and elsewhere over the most recent racist insult may indeed serve to make Western film makers, artists, journalists and others contemplating engaging in a critique of Islam, or creating a depiction of Muhammad, hesitant to proceed with their project.
However, such reticence on behalf of critics of Islam or Islamism will only grant greater impunity to the most radical forces within the faith, and will do absolutely nothing to bring true democracy, pluralism, tolerance and economic development to the Arab world.
The failure of our policy leaders and commentators to engage in critical scrutiny of the rioters, and especially the extremist movements which incited their destructiveness, will ensure only that yet another Pyrrhic victory for their faith has been secured.