Much to the delight of the media, the release of Salman Rushdie’s memoirs about the aftermath following the publication of his Satanic Verses has coincided with what seems like a similar series of events in the Muslim world – protests about a film that aggressively offends the prophet of Islam. The screens of 24-hour news channels have been filled with what Newsweek has dubbed “Muslim Rage”. To many it has seemed all too similar to the outrage over Rushdie’s book - but how similar are the two cases? How will we look back at the events of the past weeks in 23 years time?
Any comparison between the two works – The Innocence of Muslims and Rushdie’s Satanic Verses - is itself colossally unfair. Say what you like about The Satanic Verses, and many have, but the film that is the centre of the current controversy is closer to an offensive primary school nativity play than a film in the conventional sense. It is impossible not to condemn it as crassly insulting, racist and puerile. This makes it slightly harder for this to become an issue, as the Rushdie scandal did, of ‘art’ against ‘intolerance’. So it is hard to see the film winning as many supporters as The Satanic Verses when retrospective news reports about today’s events are aired in two decades’ time.
That is not to say, though, that the protests which have surfaced in places such as Libya, Yemen, Lebanon, Oman, England, Egypt and more will leave no legacy. The difference is that the impact of these protests and their implications will be felt primarily in the societies where they occurred, rather than in the wider world.
These protests, and the violence which has led to several tragic deaths, defy certain interpretations. The questions that have arisen include: “Why was this film so offensive to so many?”; “Do the small number protesters represent the mood of the people?”; “Does this represent the failure of the Arab Spring?” Some are more important than others but, like the London riots, the overall mood is one of slight uncertainty and apprehension, even confusion.
This is because too few people see the protests for what they really are: internal political machinations. Nowhere is this more apparent, though less important, than the protests in England. In London, Hizb ut-Tahrir appear to have used this as an opportunity to promote themselves and their own ideologies. At the rally in London their closing note was apparently an emphasis “that without the Islamic Khilafah state, there would not be a government to uphold the honour and sanctity of Islam on the world stage; and that now more than ever, all Muslims should be calling for it.”
Too few people see the protests for what they really are: internal political machinations
Yet the internal politics are more complicated than that. In the case of Egypt, the storming of the U.S. Embassy by violent protests coincided with Adel Imam’s acquittal on charges of blasphemy. That is not to say that everything is rosy in Egypt but those who say that extremist Islam will take over the Middle East do not appreciate the complications.
In fact, the more important political manoeuvring around these protests came from the Muslim Brotherhood camp, who seemed completely paralysed by current events. At first they did not come out to directly condemn the attacks in Egypt, merely “regret” them, and even called for more protests on the Friday. Then 24 hours later, presumably encouraged by the U.S. government, they enacted a u-turn and rather than calling for nationwide protests instead urged shows of support outside mosques. If there is to be one long-lasting effect of these protests in a political way (beyond the grief for those who died) it might be that the Muslim Brotherhood have had a wakeup call. Bandstanding might come naturally to them, but it is not always the wisest course of action.
Beyond internal politics, there is also the question of international relations – or, more specifically, the perpetration of Muslim-directed violence by the West. As writer and author Michael Muhammad Khan points out in his article for Vice Magazine, entitled “The Innocence of White People“, “this is not simply a world in which one side has a sense of humor and the other does not, or one side is “modern” and “enlightened” while the other side needs to catch up. The modern, enlightened side is burning people alive. Innocence is simply the playground bully calling your mother a slut after already breaking your jaw, and then wondering why you can’t take a joke.”
It might be nice, though, to close on a more pleasant note. One could be forgiven, judging from the coverage, for thinking that people in the Middle East and other parts of the Muslim world spend all their time being outraged by films, books or cartoons. Anyone who wants to unplug the life-support from this film controversy would do well to go to the Safar Arab film festival, premiering in London this week. This festival represents the other major political constituency in the Arab World, people who do not want to get involved in a dogfight between different Islamist trends:
“People who make war in the Middle East should really sit down to a few Arabic cinema film seasons. It would be good for them,” says Malu Halasa, a writer in residence for Safar. Quite.