This morning, I watched a few of the Sunday morning news shows, and part of the discussion is about the various riots across the Muslim world that came about from this movie (or a part of this movie), Innocence of Muslims. A couple of comments/typing aloud sort of observations.
- This is a very veeerrryyyy weird movie. Time had an interview with one of the actors who said that none of the experience made a lot of sense to anyone on the set, but basically a job is a job. All the anti-Islamic stuff is clearly dubbed in and the 14 minute clip I link to here lends some credibility to this. In places, it has the same obviously dubbed in jerkiness of Barack Obama singing “Call Me Maybe.” In other words, beyond being anti-Islamic and racist and hateful and all of that, it’s just horrifically bad, so bad that I wonder if it would be better to think of it not so much as the cause but the opportunity of the events that continue to unfold.
- I think it’s more complicated than a “video that went viral” on YouTube. Not to rely too much on Time for this, but the article “The Agents of Outrage” points out that the movie (perhaps the whole thing?) was “screened in Hollywood early this year but made no waves whatsoever.” It went up on YouTube and got in the hands of anti-Muslim Coptic Christians and infamous Koran burning Pastor Terry Jones in the hate blogosphere. But it really didn’t escalate in Egypt and then Libya until someone named Sheik Khaled Abdaallah talked about it on his TV show in Egypt. Abdaallah is described in this Time article as “every bit as inflammatory and opportunistic as Jones” (only he’s a Muslim highly critical of the Copts), so what we have here in a way is one extremist hate group versus another extremist hate group. The point is I don’t think the video on YouTube itself spread virally before it was spread in comparably older mediums.
- In any event, now there are protests all over the place, and I am willing to wager that the vast majority of the folks protesting at American (and apparently European) embassies around the world have not seen any of the movie that may (or may not) have been the exigency for these protests in the first place. I would even go so far as to say that if at least some of these protesters did see the clips of the video being circulated, they too would be confused. I think most of the protesters now are protesting in reaction to the other protests and not the movie itself. In that sense, it’s the other protests (and the coverage of them in the media) that have gone viral and not the original movie.
- In the fourth chapter of my dissertation, I write about how easy it is in rhetorical situations mediated through technologies like the internet for the boundaries between the rhetor, the audience, and even the message itself to break down. I specifically wrote about a “Mac vs. DOS” question to a mailing list and how that discussion moved far away from the original point of the question, and I argue that this is one of the inherent conditions of “immediate” rhetorical situations. But it is also simpler than that. For example, there have been a couple of riots at MSU following basketball team losses, riots where the exigency was initially related to a game but which changed as the riots progressed. And obviously, not everyone who participated in the riot as a result of the MSU loss; rather, some rioters took it merely as an opportunity to loot and cause damage. I suspect there’s some of this going on with these riots.
- Apparently there is some dispute as to whether or not Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens was killed as a result of the protests getting way out of hand or if it was premeditated, thus making the protests a sort of “cover story” for a previously planned killing. And what isn’t really being talked about much is the extent to which this was all connected to the anniversary of 9/11 and the extent to which the killing was undertaken by al-Qaeda related groups. Of course, this too is still emerging.
- And what you also see here is just good-ol-fashioned culture clash. Folks in these countries where there are strict rules on what can and cannot be said about Islam or what-have-you wonder why there aren’t laws against this sort of blasphemy in the U.S. Americans (and I suspect many others in “the west”) uphold the value of free speech even when it is hateful speech, and we (well, at least I do) wonder why such a shoddily done and ridiculous video that should perhaps best be simply ignored has gotten this much attention. Add to that a technology– YouTube et al– that make it pretty much impossible to keep this particular video out of the hands of people who want to see it (even though YouTube has blocked it in some countries like Egypt) combined with the fact that the protests themselves are being broadcast online and you have a feedback loop here: protest leads to protest.
16 thoughts on “Exigency and viral feedback on “Innocence of Muslims””
Robert Spencer liked this on Facebook.
Steve I agree with a lot of what you wrote but don’t necessarily see this as a ‘clash of civilizations.’ It was just ten years ago that the supposedly free-thinking U.S. public was involved in an frenzy of paranoia, racism, and vengeance concerning Iraq. As a result, 75% of the nation supported a war that began with a brutal “shock and awe” bombing campaign and resulted in far more deaths than the current protests will cause.
That points to one other thing that seems important: what we’re seeing now isn’t just motivated by religious fundamentalism but perhaps also by people in Muslim nations being tired of the U.S. having so much influence. Egyptians disliking the U.S. government seems understandable, given that we kept a dictator in power there for 30 years and what we’ve done in Iraq. Maybe this isn’t so much about culture and religion, but power and relationships between nations?
What I am meaning to say is that the “class of civilizations/cultures” has specifically to do with the value of free speech. In the U.S., I think there is a principle that speech– even hateful speech– ought to be protected, where as I think it’s fair to say there is not the same value of free speech in the Islamic world, particularly when it comes to Muhammad. So when folks in the middle east were saying things like “that ought to be against the law and the U.S. should do something about it,” our reaction largely is just the opposite.
That said, you’re generally right with everything else, Brian, particularly with the dicey relationship the U.S. has had with Egypt. We propped up their dictatorships for decades, so there are good reasons for folks there to be mad at us. At the same time, a lot of more moderate and reasonable people in Egypt, Libya, and beyond have tried to make it clear that these are extremists inciting these riots. Even Morsi said this, though a bit on the late-side of things.
ok, but free speech is also rejected as a value in many non-Muslim countries. In fact, just about everywhere except the US and a few other nations. No free speech in Israel, for example. Nor in India, nor China. All countries where muslims are persecuted minorities. So that blows your effort to blame it on Islam. Try again.
Oh, I’m not blaming Islam. That’s not the point I’m trying to make. I think it is much more complicated than that, and that’s what I was trying to convey in my blog post.
I’m not sure you read my blog post or not, but it’s more complicated than free speech. What I’m interested in doing here is tracing the way the situation has unfolded, and I’m not particularly interested in blaming at all.
yes, I read your blog, and yes it is complicated, and I agree that protest as protest (almost independent of content) may fuel more protest. I’m reacting to the assumption implicit in your line about rules about what can be said about “Islam or what have you,” and your use of “the Islamic world.”
I’m deeply proud to live in a country where a minority of us liberals have successfully struggled for free speech, struggled against our own “civilization” (as you will), and against our own compatriots. Even today in the US those who defend radical free speech rights are probably a minority (hats off to ACLU). So I bristle when I sense an us/them dichotomy applied to liberal values in the US compared to other parts of the world. Who is this “us”?
I also bristle at the implication that there is a single Islamic civilization. Travel to Indonesia, India and the middle east as I have, not to mention Africa and China (where I have not been) and think again. Islam does unite its believers, but much less than you might imagine. Much of what we project as similarities among muslim-majority countries are simply the similar results of poverty, large populations of young people and histories of colonial exploitation. I very much doubt that rejection of free speech is any more Muslim than it is Christian; nor any more “eastern” than “western.”
Here’s what I wrote: “Folks in these countries where there are strict rules on what can and cannot be said about Islam or what-have-you wonder why there aren’t laws against this sort of blasphemy in the U.S. Americans (and I suspect many others in “the west”) uphold the value of free speech even when it is hateful speech, and we (well, at least I do) wonder why such a shoddily done and ridiculous video that should perhaps best be simply ignored has gotten this much attention.” So, as I said, by “we,” I am at least assuming people like “me” since you are correct that there are plenty of people in this country who want their free speech but not others.
Certainly Islam is practiced differently in different countries, and yes, “Islam” is no more unifying a religion than “Christianity.” After all, a lot of the tension in places like Syria and Iraq is about fights between different branches of Islam. But I want to point out that these protests and riots have broken out far from Libya and Egypt, including Indonesia, I believe.
But I again must say the cultural disconnect here is striking to me. We’ve seen this sort of thing before with Rushdie and with the cartoons published in that Dutch newspaper a few years ago. Now this. In contrast, Monty Python makes a hilarious movie that skewers Christianity, Mel Gibson makes a movie that revives the narrative about the Jews killing Jesus, *South Park* gleefully makes fun of every religion (including Islam), and sure, there were protests and editorials but not riots. Heck, right now the most popular musical in the country is an extraordinarily pointed critique of the Mormon church.
I’m not going to pretend I’m not making a judgement here because I think these riots are both bizarre and wrong, and as a devote agnostic/atheist/heathen, I assure you I have no more interest in defending Christianity than I do in debasing Islam. It makes sense to me that Egyptians would be pissed off at the U.S. for its policies in propping up Mubarac et al, but over this? Sorry, it doesn’t make sense.
The protests and backlash by all means is being blown out of proportion for such a B list (at it’s very best) movie, however, I think that is what would really ad to the emotion, at least Passion was “skillfully” (source needed…) done. But, Southpark at least considered Americans living and traveling in places overseas because even they censored themselves when it did come to Islam. They do mock all religions but the big attention getter with Islam was censored. If this man accused is Egyptian-American he knew something would happen maybe not on this level but he wanted to cause something, and for that he has very little respect for anyone no matter what their religion is.
Steve, my point is that it isn’t “Islam” or even muslims that is behind these stupid, violent mobs, but a specific historical situation. There have been similar attacks on people in India (over books, works of art), but because they didn’t kill any Americans or famous artists, and because the attacks were done by Hindus or neo-Buddhists in the name of their religion or their saints, it did not make news. In other places in the past couple years people have been attacked by mobs because they were accused of witchcraft. People can be like that. There is still a simplistic us/them pattern to your thinking that is far too broad. Of course you and I don’t like mobs, mob-think, lynchings…but please stop assuming that these are tied in any causative way to Islam.
My colleague Jeff Rice has an interesting post about all this too: http://ydog.net/?p=1536 With that post, there’s a good comment with a link to a good article in *The Economist:* http://www.economist.com/node/21562960
Two good quotes from that piece, IMO: ” In a hallmark essay in 1990 called “The Roots of Muslim Rage”, Bernard Lewis, an Anglo-American commentator on Islam, blamed a mentality twisted by history. He cited the obligation of holy war, dating from the faith’s turbulent birth and shaped by centuries of setbacks ranging from the retreat from Europe to Western imperialism, and even the challenge to Muslim male authority from rebellious children and emancipated women. The result was an inferiority complex, in which humiliation was compounded by Western ignorance.”
“Ignorance of the way the West works in many Muslim countries makes rabble-rousing easy. Protesters at the American embassy in Cairo on September 11th erroneously believed the offensive film to have been shown on “American state television”: in a place with a weak tradition of independent broadcasting, that claim is not as absurd as it might be elsewhere.
“The casualties of such outbursts are not only innocent lives and lost livelihoods. The truth suffers too. A reluctance among many Muslims to accept that America could be a blundering victim of atrocities rather than a wily perpetrator meant that the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers were widely reported from the outset as an inside job, facilitated by Israel’s intelligence service, to stoke up Western hatred of Islam. Three-quarters of Egyptians now believe that conspiracy theory.”
And again, if it appears that there is indeed a simplistic us/them pattern in my thinking on this, then it would appear that I have failed as a writer in this instance.
yes, it is precisely the orientalist, reductionist and not very well informed stereotyping of Lewis and his ilk that I am challenging.
Whoever just said here that there’s no free speech in Israel doesn’t know anything about Israel. Newspapers, members of the Knesset , everyday people criticize everything, including the government. It’s not stop critique. Talk about an orientalist stereotype.
yes, Israelis are argumentative. Nonetheless, Israel is one of many countries that limits speech. There are, for example, explicit blasphemy laws on the books. In addition, nuclear topics and other topics considered sensitive by the military have been censored, and at least one journalist has been banned for publishing without first submitting his work for censoring. In contrast the US has no blasphemy laws and does not routinely censor journalists or publications (although in many cases the State Dept may not allow in certain people, but that’s not quite free speech any more).
That’s absolute rubbish. All countries have military censorship, and often for good reason. The country itself has freedom of speech. I’ve grown tired of such lies. If you want to object to something, fine. But this is an outright lie. An MK has served as Arafat’s aid even though he is a citizen of Israel and says whatever he wants about the state. No repercussions. Imagine a Senator serving as aid to a foreign entity and being able to say whatever he wants. Blasphemy laws? What is your experience? I have citizenship and have lived there. Have you? I can say whatever I want about religion. I can write down with the Torah in a newspaper article and there is no punishment. You are clueless.
hey Jeff, I don’t think we know each other, but we’re both friends of Steve so let’s try to stick to enthusiastic arguing and not slide into rage, shall we? I think I’ve touched on a sore spot for you, just as Steve did for me. I’m guessing you’ve been reading lies about Israel, but not knowing exactly what you’re referring to, I’ll just say I’m certainly not intending to lie. My point is that many countries that are not majority muslim have laws against blasphemy, and it is a simple fact that Israel is one of those countries. It is not a country where the law is invoked a lot, at least that I know, but there it is. There are are also censorship rules in Israel applied to journalists, which you yourself say is for good reason. That in itself shouldn’t be offensive to you, so there must be something behind this that’s upsetting you, but maybe whatever that is falls beyond the scope of this facebook thread. Perhaps you didn’t like the blunt “no free speech in Israel” line I wrote – ok, fair enough: I could have written,”in Israel, like in many other countries, there are limits to free speech in the form of blasphemy laws and censorship of journalism.” – perhaps that would smooth out what must have seemed a red flag to you.