Saturday, September 22, 2012

Absurd Frenzy

An American flag burns. An angry mob goes on a rampage. A car is set ablaze. Black smoke rises to the sky. People scatter attacked by water canons and tear gas. Yet again anger against America ignites violence in some parts of the Islamic world. And American's are left aghast as the reasons don't make sense. Unfortunately the reasons have always remained the same, it is the spark that is always different.

This time it is a youtube video. The trailer for a despicable and amateurish film titled Innocence of Muslims by a man named Nakoula Basseley Nakoula is at the heart of the anger and the rage. Mr. Nakoula is no film maker of any repute. A Coptic Christian from Egypt, he may not even be an American citizen. In 2010 he was convicted of check fraud and was on probation. A 14 minute preview for a supposed feature length film that depicts Prophet Muhammad as a badly dressed buffoon, womanizer and pedophile was uploaded to youtube in June. No one paid any attention. It was then translated into Arabic and uploaded several more times in the weeks leading up to the infamous day, September 11th. The video was then shown on Egyptian television which sparked an unforeseen chain of events that has caused death, injury and destruction. A response to no film or any kind of expression in this world justifies killing and mayhem the likes of which we have seen over the last few weeks. So is this absurd frenzy really a reaction to the film or is it just a pretext to something that is very present.

Today, the Pakistani government declared a public holiday giving people the leisure time to protest against what they see as an attack on their religion. Images of people after Friday prayer going on a destruction spree of their own property, took the absurdity of the situation even higher. But then again Pakistan has a lot to be angry about. And Pakistanis in the last decade or so have taken every opportunity to publicly exhibit their disgust against America for the war they have brought to their region. Here seemed to be another occasion to display that anger. A minister even declared a $100,000 bounty on Nakoula Basseley and a few dozen people have already died in clashes with the police. From the Middle East, South Asia, Africa to the Far East, protesters have come out displaying their anger against America. Even though their numbers seem to have swelled, they are a minority, but a loud and raucous one.

In 1989 Ayatollah Khomeini, the cleric leader of Iran, used Salman Rushdie and his book The Satanic Versus as a soft target to launch his attack on the west. When he announced a Fatwa, calling for the author's death for desecrating Islam, people who had not read even a page of the book or knew a word of English went into a state of mass frenzy expressing their anger against the west for harboring him. Other nations resorted to banning the book, including the democratic nation of the author's birth, India. Even though freedom of expression was and is an integral part of India's constitution, its leaders buckled to the frenzy of the extremists who were not interested in an intellectual debate but were more energized by a medieval response, much like what is being seen today.

The furor over the cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad published in the Danish magazine Jyllands-Posten lead to the undesirable death of hundred mostly Muslims around the world. Again a medieval response was favored by some people instead of a non-violent discourse. Much like in the case of this film, there was a four month delayed response to the cartoons since the time they were published. Why that was the case is open to speculation and the absurdity of it all becomes even more pronounced as a result.

On September 12, 2012 prisoner number 156 at Guantanamo Bay committed suicide. Adnan Farhan Abdul Latif, a Yemini was picked up by Pakistani security forces in late 2001 near the Afghan-Pakistan border and was handed to the American forces. Barely 20, he was labeled a "foreign fighter" a foot soldier for Al-Qaida and transported to a hell that would see his end. Without a shred of evidence to prove he was part of a terror group or had committed a war crime he was held without being charged, deprived of any contact with the outside world. He was the ninth detainee to commit suicide at Guantanamo Bay. 170 detainees still stare into the abyss, and they are all Muslim. Drone attacks in Pakistan and Yemen steadily kill what the media calls "suspected militants". This month alone there have been several dead and some were women and children, "Collateral Damage" all Muslim. Israel continues to inflict a system of apartheid on millions of Palestinians, all Muslim, with the world and America just watching by. The casualties of illegal wars orchestrated by America in response to the action of a few Muslim terrorists are still on going. Not a single American in power has been prosecuted for those criminal wars and the present US administration recently made sure no one ever will.

There is enough anger simmering in the Muslim world, justly so, as a result of the double standards the west has so blatantly advertised. On one hand the west talks peace, freedom of speech, social justice and rule of law and on the other allows institutions like Guantanamo Bay to exist and places like Gaza to fester, with no recourse. Therefore a large majority of Muslims around the world believe 9/11 to have been an inside job. The conspiracy theory that the Israeli intelligence agency was involved behind the planning and execution of the attack to stoke up western hatred for Islam, is a widely believed thesis. According to the magazine The Economist three quarters of Egypt believes in this account. So the protests we are seeing could be an expression of this indignation and it is important to pay attention to it, if we are to understand the world we live in today.

In a recent interview while publicizing his memoir about living under a Fatwa titled Joseph Anton (his code name in hiding), Salman Rushdie conceded that he would not have been able to publish The Satanic Versus today. According to him, there has been a chilling effect as a result of what has gone on since those days of mass hysteria, and the casualty has been the freedom of expression. In an earlier interview he expressed the opinion that the battle that is ensuing today is not between Islam and the west, more so it is a battle between moderate and liberal voices within Islam against the extremist ones. It seems like the extremists are setting the agenda. Fear and intimidation is working in drowning the moderate voices and a version of the Muslim world is filtering through which is far from accurate. The unspoken casualty is civility and the outcome is the demonizing of a people and a religion.

The film Innocence of Muslims is an anomaly that is so extreme, the fact that it warranted such attention is astonishing. Much like the propagandist films of Al-Qaida, Hamas, Hezbollah and other extremist groups, this film was purely made to offend, create hatred and instigate a response. The slow burning fuse was lit on the internet and certain vested interests succeeded in fanning it into a fire. Whether the fire will turn into an engulfing blaze, only time will tell.

The corner stone of any civil society is the right to express oneself without fear. Without it there cannot exist a healthy mind and without which there can be no progress. Everyday even in the most democratic of societies this freedom is under threat. The imprisonment of the Indian cartoonist Aseem Trivedi and the sentencing of the Russian feminist punk band Pussycat Riot are recent examples of state oppression against free speech. It is the fight for freedom to express new thoughts and ideas and to do away with the old guard that gave rise to the religions of Islam and Christianity. Jesus did not accept the law of the land he lived under, nor did Muhammad. They both had a clear idea of what the world should be like, and the idea of "peace" played an important role in shaping it. They both fought against persecution to make a new path for their followers. There in lies the irony of the world we live in today. It is what it is.