On the islamization of a global conflict

Guest Author: Thijl Sunier

Just over a week ago, after a period of relative silence, we could witness the start of another mediated Islam-hype with heated debates, demonstrations and (verbal and physical) violence. The apparent cause this time was the trailer on YouTube of an obscure movie titled “Innocence of Muslims” about the prophet Mohammed. The movie, in which Mohammed is depicted as a violent child molester, a rapist, a con-man and a homosexual, is the product of an obscure anti-Islam activist in the United States. The movie was designed to provoke Muslims deliberately by insulting Mohammed, much in the same way as the mad priest in Florida who burnt the Quran a couple of years ago. After the very-hard-to-find trailer was released, there was a small demonstration in Cairo in which the movie was mentioned along with other grievances against the US. It became a global issue only after an attack on the American embassy in Benghazi in Libya in which the ambassador was killed. Not very surprisingly this aroused strong reactions and a lot of media attention around the world, whereupon the protest spread to other countries. American magazines published grotesque cover images of angry mobs and raging Muslims. The whole circus of Islam critiques was mobilized to express their deep worries about the ‘ever increasing influence of radical Islam across the globe’.

It is remarkable to observe how quickly and relatively easy the commonly invoked discursive infrastructure of reactions and counter-reactions in such kinds of events is revived and repeated. The mediated sequence of public performances follows a basic script in which the same the (rhetorical) questions are posed and the same conclusions are drawn. With every new event this script becomes more established and more predictable.

On the 18th of September I watched a discussion on the German television dedicated to the event. It was a very informative discussion because it presented in a nutshell the dominant narrative that circulates globally. The participants in the debate are the ‘usual suspects’ performing a role in a drama called ‘should we be fearful of Islam?’ There is the senior orientalist who argues that the cause of all this dates centuries back to the 18th century Saudi Islamic scholar Mohammed ibn Abd al-Wahhab. Then there is the pious Muslima who states that only a small group of radicals use violence and that the majority of Muslims thinks differently even if they feel insulted by the movie. There is the journalist of the mainstream German newspaper who states that it is about the clash between freedom of speech and freedom of religion, being absolutely certain that radical Islam is gaining ground. There is the self-proclaimed ‘ex-Muslim’ (former member of a Salafi group in Germany) who knows ‘from the inside’ that it is the duty of all Muslims to hate (and preferably kill) all non-Muslims. There is the left-wing politician who pleas for a close cooperation between moderate Muslims and non-Muslims to overcome radicalism and to avoid schism. Finally there is the right-wing politician who stresses the need for more security measures. It is the repetition of strokes in a continuous play without much prospect for getting much further.

The basic feature of the script that is followed in these debates is that a global, very complex conflict is reduced to a simplified chain of causes in which the explanation boils down to theology and affect: insulting the prophet Mohammed causes rage among Muslims because Islam prescribes them to do so. There is a mutually reinforcing basic consensus among all these different voices that the conflict is about Islamic reasoning and sacred duties.

Those who question this simplistic explanation have a hard time because they have to argue against a dominant narrative. On discussion sites and blogs we find a number of very good analyses of the complexities of the events, but they are ignored largely by mainstream media. Fortunately things do not remain the same completely, however. The more these mediated hypes become predictable standard narratives (the next one is coming up in France as we speak), the more journalists become fed up with it. This is a good sign in my view.

Thijl Sunier is full professor in Cultural Anthropology (VU University Amsterdam). His specializations are Religion (islam, politics and islam, leadership, young people and and islam), migration, ethnicity and nation formation, European History and Turkey.

This blogentry was also published at Standplaats Wereld.

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