The debate about the Innocence of Muslims film has been fairly predictable so far. There’s Deborah Orr in the Guardian complaining about Western ‘arrogance’ and quoting the Quran, Seamus Milne trying to marshall the Arab street into his discredited anti-imperialist matrix, and a letter in the Guardian which declares ‘Surely those who made and then distributed this disgusting – not laughable – film, bear as much responsibility for the violence as those who are reacting against it.’
The idea is that all that Enlightenment stuff about free speech is all very well, but you can’t challenge worldwide religious ideas and you can’t hurt anyone’s feelings. Because when my feelings are hurt I cheer myself up by setting fire to a building.
But there are a couple of things that are new.
The first is the fairly obvious political gamesmanship behind the whole thing. It’s more and more apparent that dictators and clerics in the theocratic world generate this kind of hysteria because it distracts Arab street’s attention from the horrendous poverty, discrimination and misery in their own countries, most of which is the fault of the dictators and clerics. Avaaz has a good, pointed article on the Salafi activists who distributed the film and organised the embassy burnings. Rebels in Syria are infuriated that the controversy over a stupid thirteen-minute YouTube clip has eclipsed Assad’s war against his people – death toll 26,000, 250,000 refugees, and counting. Syrian activist Ammar Abdulhamid told the Daily Beast that: ‘To Assad, the rallies spurred by the Islam-bashing film were heaven-sent: they have given credence to his claims that the Arab Spring is at heart an Islamist spring and that al Qaeda and its affiliates will be empowered as a result.’
Chomsky was wrong. What’s behind this is not the manufacture of consent, it’s about the manufacture of outrage, and it’s striking that so many on the Western Marxist left seem to miss the blatant ruling class politics going on here. There is hope though. Avaaz estimates that the numbers on the streets are tiny in comparison to the street demonstrations during the Arab Spring. The Arab street wants what the rest of us wants. There have even been demonstrations in Libyan cities where people have come out with placards apologising for the violence and condemning terrorism.
I’d also highlight this article by Richard Dawkins. He’s a more measured and nuanced thinker than the militant atheist of Guardian caricature, and he concedes that the critics of free speech have a point: ‘While anybody has a perfect right to say what they like about any dead prophet, in this case you kind of wish they wouldn’t.’ But he goes on to talk about the classic Monty Python film Life of Brian, which showed that ridicule and derision can, paradoxically, have a civilising effect.
Life of Brian reminds us of the contrast between Christian and Muslim reactions to offence. Christians were furious about that sublimely brilliant film, and they blathered and pontificated pathetically (in notorious cases never having seen it), but they stopped short of murder and arson. It would be completely impossible for the Monty Python team to get funding to make a comparable film about Mohammed. An additional consequence of Muslim intransigence and violence, then, is that high quality, sharply satirical movies about Mohammed cannot be made.
That is it. Because of the huge social taboo against critiques of Islam, thoughtful and reasonable criticisms don’t happen. People who respect civility just don’t go there. (I follow an ex-Muslim on Twitter who ended a series of quality points on Mohammed idol worship with the line ‘And I am only saying this because Twitter has allowed me to do so anonymously.’) Only the provocateurs, the attention seekers and outright racists feel that they are up to the challenge.
I don’t believe in offence for its own sake. Civility and etiquette are worth having. Intellect shades so seamlessly into emotion and some ideas are so much a part of people’s identities that to challenge them will cause emotional pain. But it’s the restrictions and taboos around what you can and cannot say about Islam, that in their perverse way facilitate the causing of offence.
The Arab Street, yesterday. Image: Gawker