Fear and hatred

Published : Oct 19, 2012 00:00 IST

The reaction to the protests around Innocence of Muslims was as much an example of Islamophobia as the cultural conditions that produced the video in the first place.

In America, for one thing, all Muslims are subjected to a kind of Islamophobia. That is endemic to the United States, and ranges from being detained in the airport, being followed by the FBI, problems at colleges, and elsewhere.

Noam Chomsky, Counterpunch, September 27, 2012.

A NOVEL ( The Satanic Verses, 1989), a cartoon series (Muhammeds ansigt, 2005) and a 14-minute video clip (The Real Life of Muhammad, 2011): these spurred global protests. Each of these cultural artefacts had, in different ways and with varied artistic merits, been seen as denigrations of Islam. Salman Rushdies novel The Satanic Verses was banned in many countries, including India, and it provoked a death sentence on the author from the leading cleric in Iran. The protests around the novel set in place a political grammar that continues in place. What is often missed about these protests is that they are not always about what they seem to be. On the surface, the demonstrations against these books, videos and cartoons reflect the sentiments of Muslims who are offended by the disregard shown to their beliefs. But beneath this lurk other motivations.

Across North Africa into West Asia and down to parts of South Asia, authoritarian regimes did not allow popular protests on political and economic matters. What the regimes did not ban were protests on cultural issues, such as those organised to defend religious sentiments. This desiccated political landscape meant that protests around a book, a cartoon and a video were often about much more than offence to religion. They were also about the indignity of being under the thumb of dictators and their distant enablers (in many cases, the West) and about the fact of everyday deprivation. In Pakistan, for instance, the demonstrators against the video chanted slogans about drone attacks, while the protesters in Egypt held up signs against the $4.8-billion International Monetary Fund (IMF) deal. This concatenation of issues is often ignored by those who see the protests in terms of Muslim Rage, as Newsweek put it. Certainly, the protesters wanted to indicate their outrage at the insult to their faith. But they had so many other grievances that came along with them, issues that they are otherwise hard-pressed to raise in places that do not sanctify protests on livelihood and anti-war matters.

The reduction of the protests to the idea of Muslim Rage turns the demonstrators into cartoons. Their own impulses and views are not relevant. The very reaction to the protests mimics the artefacts that spurred them on in the first place. The people are not to be taken seriously because there is something in their religion, in their incapacity to be modern and free that compels them to act in this way. Not only does Islamophobia (fear and hatred of Islam) drive these protests, but the very reaction to these protests is also on the terrain of Islamophobia.

Innocence of Muslims

In September 1990, Princeton Universitys Bernard Lewis wrote one of his most celebrated essays in The Atlantic bearing the familiar title, The Roots of Muslim Rage. Lewis, an expert in Ottoman history, entered the debate as the Rushdie affair embroiled the world. Lewis assessed the theories that the outbreak of hatred and violence was a consequence of racism and imperialism. To these charges, and to others as heinous, Lewis wrote, we have no option but to plead guiltynot as Americans, nor yet as Westerners, but simply as human beings, as members of the human race. Having dismissed these modern or contemporary causes of unrest to the ineluctability of humanity, Lewis went to the bedrock, This is no less than a clash of civilisationsthe perhaps irrational but surely historic reaction of an ancient rival against our Judeo-Christian heritage, our secular present, and the worldwide expansion of both. It is crucially important that we on our side should not be provoked into an equally historic but also equally irrational reaction against that rival. Lewis pioneered the scripted reaction that we now hear from the political elites of the West when an outbreak of protest against cultural humiliation manifests itself.

Demonstrations in Karachi and Cairo will always be seen as anger at Judeo-Christian culture and secular culture, but never as motivated by frustration at the indignity foisted on much of the world through the social processes of the IMF and the World Bank or the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and the American military bases. Just 10 days after 9/11, U.S. President George W. Bush stood in the congressional chamber and enigmatically answered Newsweeks question, Why Do They Hate Us?, with this answer, They hate our freedoms: our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other. His referent was Al Qaeda, but it sounded like he was talking about Muslims in general.


In his recent memoir, Rushdie writes, in the third person, of his own recognition that Lewis was correct. Something was eroding the faith of his grandfather, he wrote, making it an ideology of narrowness and intolerance, banning books, persecuting thinkers, erecting absolutisms, turning dogma into a weapon with which to beat the undogmatic. That thing needed to be fought and to fight it one had to name it and the only name that fit was Islam. Actually existing Islam had become its own poison and Muslims were dying of it ( Joseph Anton, 2012). Liberalism and secularism had passed Muslims by, Rushdie suggested, and it was up to people like him to catalyse a reformation. There is little here to suggest that Rushdie, tragically, understood that he stood in for what the Iranian clerics called The Great Satan, the U.S. and the West generally. Instead, Rushdie suggests that Ayatollah Khomeini passed the fatwa to turn attention from a bloody war that he had prosecuted against Iraq (1980-1988). But, as the writer Pankaj Mishra put it in The Guardian, it was Saddam Hussein who invaded Iran, and then assaulted it with chemical weapons, with the consent, even support, of Western countries. This not only stoked a long-simmering anti-Westernism in Iran, which had been occupied by Russia and Britain during both World Wars, and then suffered for decades the brutal dictatorship of the pro-American Shah. The second longest intra-nation war of the 20th century, which killed nearly one million Iranians, also entrenched the Basij militia and [the] Revolutionary Guards, made life harder for the moderates who cancelled Khomeinis fatwa, and eventually helped bring Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to power.

Avoidance of the history of Western malfeasance in the belt that runs from Morocco to Indonesia and of the history of dictatorships propped up with the support of the North Atlantic allows for a cavalier dismissal of rage as somehow rooted in an ageless culture rather than in the fabric of international relations. In August 2006, British Prime Minister Tony Blair warned that an arc of extremism had taken hold in that belt, and that he wanted to husband an alliance of moderation to defeat it. That phrase arc of extremism appealed to President Bush, who reflected on 9/11 and the Wests wars on Afghanistan, Iraq and on the mythical sounding place called Terror, with a thicker brush. Since the horror of 9/11, weve learned a great deal about the enemy, he told the U.S. public. And we have learned that their goal is to build a radical Islamic empire where women are prisoners in their homes, men are beaten for missing prayer meetings, and terrorists have a safe haven to plan and launch attacks on America and other civilised nations. The savage nations, one can surmise, are the homelands on this arc of extremism. The war against this enemy is more than a military conflict. It is the decisive ideological struggle of the 21st century, and the calling of our generation. This struggle has been called a clash of civilisations. In truth, it is a struggle for civilisation. We are fighting to maintain the way of life enjoyed by free nations.

Reflecting on Bushs 2006 speech, Deepak Kumar, author of Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire (2012), notes, What is striking about this characterisation of the West and Islam is not only the degree of hyperbole but the fact that it finds resonance within the wider culture. Media pundits in the U.S. casually call for the racial profiling of Arabs, Muslims and those who resemble terrorists. Hollywood produces a series of unreflective films that portray Arabs as terrorists, sheikhs or belly dancers. These representations are rooted in a long history of Orientalism, where disregard and fascination for the Arab is a routine feature. Out of this mediocre and Islamophobic history of representations of Islam and the Arab emerges the 14-minute trailer of Innocence of Muslims (or The Real Life of Muhammad), made by Nakoula Basseley Nakoula in 2011 (and shown with Arabic subtitles on al-Nas, a Salafi satellite channel on September 9). At the United Nations General Assembly, President Barack Obama denounced the crude and disgusting video, and pointed out that the United States government had nothing to do with that video. Nonetheless, it is also the case that a wellspring of Islamophobia did sanctify the images and themes that run right through the video.

As if to prove the case, in San Francisco and New York City, a group called Stop the Islamisation of America put up advertisements with the tag line, In any war between the civilised man and the savage, support the civilised man. Support Israel. Defeat Jihad. The idea of civilised and savage is not novel to Pam Geller, who runs the group; they echo the 2006 speech by President Bush and the long history of colonial discourse. In August, the Arab American Institute released a report whose findings suggest that there is considerable support for the Geller position. Forty-one per cent of the U.S. residents asked by the survey had an unfavourable opinion of Muslims. Similar numbers expressed unfavourable opinions of Arabs, Muslim Americans and Arab Americans. The ground for this unfavourable attitude is not seeded by unfamiliarity. (Sikhs are also seen negatively, but this is based on a total lack of knowledge about them.) The problem is partly borne I think of bigotry, said Jim Zogby of the Institute.

Zogby cited events such as Pam Gellers movement against an Islamic community centre in lower Manhattan (New York City), the bizarre anti-Sharia bans in many States in the U.S., the letter written by Representative Michelle Bachmann that warned the country about the perils of Muslims in higher office who are linked to Islamic extremism. The fear about Sharia in the U.S. resonated in the Republican Partys primary, with Newt Gingrich weighing in to avert the danger, I believe Sharia is a mortal threat to the survival of freedom in the United States and in the world as we know it. This is an utterly imaginary danger, but it has convulsed a section of the voting public. The numbers, Zogby notes, tell us that when you have a decade-long campaign [of Islamophobia], it takes a toll.

The violence as a response to the video (and before that the cartoons and The Satanic Verses) is not a symptom of Muslim rage. That violence has to be seen in the context of a general sense of dispossession and subordination in the global South. This is not a natural situation, with the mob gratuitously destroying and killing (apart from the situation in Libya, where the story is a bit more complex). Islamophobia is not simply the cultural denigration of Islam and the political fear mongering about Muslims (and those who resemble Muslims), but it is also the denial of the context of frustration and humiliation in the global South. The reaction to the protests around Innocence of Muslims was as much an example of Islamophobia as the cultural conditions that produced the video in the first place.

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment