Anyone not living under a rock must have come across news reports, articles and videos about the 14 minute trailer to the film: Innocence of Muslims. News headlines and reports have not only covered the controversy around the film and its release, but have debated on the link between this movie and the spark of protests across the Middle East and in Muslim countries worldwide. Renowned thinkers, such as Tariq Ramadan, have released statements about the film and the political tournure it has taken through its effect on global dynamics in the Middle East and elsewhere.
Watching the said trailer of the film I was surprised to discover that this was no Steven Spielberg, Spike Lee or any other notable production by a notable producer or director but rather that this low-quality and seemingly low-budget movie appears to be akin to one of those spoof comedies common to YouTube but not meant to be taken seriously at all. How and why then has this video been said to be responsible for so much damage in Muslim countries, allegedly including the murder of the American ambassador to Libya, and worldwide violent protests? How does something of such low quality gain so much importance in global politics? Do we reduce this simply to another anti-Islamic process or are there more issues at stake here?
The film itself is set in Egypt, is about Egyptians and involves conflicts between Muslims and Christians; and at the centre of which one finds shockingly derogatory references to the Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w). One must understand in recognition of freedom of religion enjoyed worldwide, and following the scandal around the depiction of the Prophet by the Danish cartoonists that the figure of Prophet Muhammad for Muslims worldwide is enshrined in nobility and respect. For any Muslim, any representation of the Prophet in scandalous or uncouth ways is an insult to Islam as a religion and the institutions it stands for.
This debate is not new, and was endlessly covered following the Danish controversy, to the point that the United Nations referred to it as a human rights violation. In a similar manner, Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, alleged director of the film, was arrested and faces imprisonment charges. The point here is not the power of technology, or the rapidity with which this film not only was uploaded, but circulated worldwide over the internet to the point of resulting in violent protests. We are all aware that we live in a highly connected world, where the smallest drop in the ocean is enough to deeply stir the entire surface. Rather I argue that questions of where to draw the line between freedom of speech and freedom of religion are what one should be most concerned with.
Notwithstanding the time at which this film was released (shortly after September 11) and the current global tensions between political Islam, the Middle East and the West, it is not surprising that we witnessed such nefarious reaction. In most countries in addition, other political concerns were bubbling underneath, and this film simply served as the final straw that broke the camel’s back. To anybody who has not researched the movie further, it represents anti-Islamic propaganda, though it was intended to reflect on tensions between Christians and Muslims in Egypt.
I would invite us all to take a step back and not get dragged into the endless global tirade on Islamism and terrorism in the Middle East but rather to think about questions of freedom of speech and freedom of religion in countries with large numbers of people from different religions. Are Egyptian Christians so restricted in their freedom of religion that one individual would need to derogate Egyptian Muslims, and thus Muslims worldwide in order to have his voice heard? What about current reactions and ideas on Islam? Are Muslims worldwide fully enjoying freedom of religion? And what of other religions?
From Egypt, to Israel, to Palestine, to Nigeria: the problem again does not seem to be religion or an appartenance to a set of religious institutions but rather the extent to which people choose to respect each other’s rights to practice a religion; and how this respect (or lack thereof) can easily be politicized and manipulated to spur people into reacting in various ways; not often positively.
On the internet, the world is highly connected, we all easily represent ourselves as this global community of humans who respect each other’s humanity and are tolerant of varying views but the truth remains that any little thing, such as a low-budget film, is enough to show that this global humanity still remains a facade in most cases. Perhaps it is time to use social media to convey tolerance and respect of each other, as opposed to using it to enhance our differences.
**Nadia Ahmadou is a regular Bokamoso Leadership Forum blog Contributor. Her short biography and previous articles are available here.