A DUBIOUS character of unclear nationality makes a highly offensive film about Islam and Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) in the US. With the help of others who, based on the available footage, had little purpose beyond tastelessly mocking the religion, a portion of it reaches the Arab world on the Internet. Understandably, in a part of the world where many are protective of their faith above all else, these clips spark deep offence. And the protests that follow once again feed into the false and destabilising impression that there is a war between civilisations, raising questions about whether Muslim countries and the West can survive peacefully alongside each other in an increasingly globalised world. The reality is, though, that controversies such as the one over this film or the Danish cartoons or the Quran-burning in Texas are not in fact conflicts between monolithic concepts of ‘Islam’ and ‘the West’. Nor are they attempts by certain countries or governments to destablise others. They are storms brewed by small numbers of incendiary, irresponsible people with little regard for global sensitivities or the consequences their actions can have.
The best way to respond to such actions is to ignore them or to protest peacefully, and that is where the reaction to the film clips in some Muslim countries could have been different. Attacking American missions and their innocent employees holds a government responsible for the actions of independent actors. It chooses violence over the rule of law. And it works against Muslims themselves, strengthening the paranoid impression that has developed around the world that they harbour a deep and dangerous hatred of all things non-Muslim. Responding violently to the creations of fringe elements simply feeds into the false impressions of Islam these elements believe in and are trying to perpetuate.
But in the days to come it is not just violence, but politics and diplomacy that will also be at stake. How this plays out will in part depend on how the issue is handled by America and Egypt, where the president is trying to balance the country’s newly won democracy with his obligations to the outside world. The US-backed Arab Spring has, as a natural consequence of increased freedom, given more space to religious conservatives. The way to tackle this increased complexity is for America to honour sensitivities in the Muslim world and for Muslim countries to keep violence in check. Neither can afford to let democracy in the region, or relations between America and Muslim countries, be held hostage to the actions of a group of reckless and insensitive film-makers.