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A US magazine cover (below) screams out the general media slant of the
last two weeks: the Muslim world is burning with anti-western anger over
an Islamophobic film, with hordes of violent protesters on the streets
threatening us all... But is it really? Citizens and new media are responding,
and Gawker has brilliantly satirised the hype with
alternative images of "Muslim Rage":
Seven things you may have missed in the 'Rage':
Like everyone else, most Muslims find the 13 minute Islamophobic video "Innocence of Muslims" trashy and offensive, and protests have spread quickly, tapping into understandable and lasting grievances about neo-colonialist US and western foreign policy in the Middle East as well as religious sensitivities about depictions of the Prophet Muhammad. But the news coverage often omits some important points:
Early estimates put participation in anti-film protests at 0.001 to 0.007% of the world's 1.5 billion Muslims – a tiny fraction of those who marched for democracy in the Arab spring.
Top Libyan and US officials are divided over whether the killing of the US ambassador to Libya was likely pre-planned to coincide with 9/11, and therefore not connected to the film.
Apart from attacks by radical militant groups in Libya and Afghanistan, a survey of news reports on 20 September suggested that actual protesters had killed a total of zero people.
Pretty much every major leader, Muslim and western, has condemned the film, and pretty much every leader, Muslim and western, has condemned any violence that might be committed in response.
The pope visited Lebanon at the height of the tension, and Hezbollah leaders attended his sermon, refrained from protesting the film until he left, and called for religious tolerance. Yes, this happened.
After the attack in Benghazi, ordinary people turned out on the streets in Benghazi and Tripoli with signs, many of them in English, apologising and saying the violence did not represent them or their religion.
Add to that the number of really big news stories that were buried last week to make room for front page, angry Muslim, "Clash" coverage. In Russia tens of thousands of protesters marched through Moscow to oppose Russian President Vladimir Putin. Hundreds of thousands of Portuguese and Spaniards turned out for anti-austerity protests; and more than a million Catalans marched for independence.
Muslim Rage or Salafist strategy
Meet Sheikh Abdallah, the Salafist TV host who peddled the film. Photo: Ted Nieter
The "Innocence of Muslims" was picked up and peddled with subtitles by the far-right Salafists – radical followers of an Islamic movement long supported by Saudi Arabia. The film was a cheaply made, YouTube failure until Egyptian Salafist TV host, Sheikh Khaled Abdullah (right) began promoting it to viewers on 8 September. Most insulted Muslims ignored the film or protested peacefully, but the Salafists, with their signature black flags, were leading instigators of the more aggressive protests that breached embassies. Leaders of the Egyptian Salafist party attended the Cairo protest that broke into the US embassy.
Like the far-right in the US or Europe, the Salafist strategy is to drag public opinion rightward by seizing on opportunities to fan radical anger and demonise ideological opponents. This approach resembles that of anti-Muslim US pastor Terry Jones (who first promoted the film in the west) and other western extremists. In both societies, however, the moderates far (far!) outnumber the extremists. A leading figure in Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood (the more powerful and popular political opponent of Egypt’s Salafists) wrote to the New York Times saying: "We do not hold the American government or its citizens responsible for acts of the few that abuse the laws protecting freedom of expression".
The good media on this
A lonely band of journalists and scholars have approached the protests with an intent to truly understand the forces behind them. Among them, Hisham Matar who powerfully describes the sadness in Benghazi after the Steven's killing, and Barnaby Phillips who explores how Islamic conservatives manipulated the film to their advantage. Anthropologist Sarah Kendzior cautions against treating the Muslim world as a homogenous unit. And Professor Stanley Fish tackles a tough question: why many Muslims are so sensitive to unflattering depictions of Islam.