Thursday, 20 September 2012

Why this was not about a film trailer

For a time last year westerners fell in love with Al-Jazeera. Armchair revolutionaries watched as archetypal despots were overthrown by archetypal freedom fighters, you might say that liberals felt a pang of vicarious empowerment that our domestic politics tends to deny us. It made for good viewing, in no small part because of the simplicity of the story we were given. After the revolutions were over, we changed channel.

The Muslim world, however, did not, and both before and since the fall of the Gaddafi regime, Muslims around the middle east were watching civilians killed by the dozen in drone attacks on Pakistan, they were watching Palestinian communities driven into poverty and mocked by Israeli security forces for the privilege. We changed the channel, and remained largely unconcerned by the middle east until fanatics blew up an ambassador. It needs to be stated forcefully that this is not about a ten minute piece of film propaganda, created by Christian fundamentalists in America. “Innocence of Muslims” is absolutely, categorically the tip of the iceberg. The idea that Muslims around the world are becoming violent over a film propagates some Victorian idea of a hysterical and semi-civilised breed of robed madmen; it’s the religious equivalent of David Cameron’s "Calm down,  dear!" reaction to Angela Eagle. Muslims around the world are incensed for legitimate reasons, and when their anger boils over in ugly fashion, they will watch Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton stand bravely failing to understand how people can be so hateful, and how America remains committed to freedom. Clinton and Obama felt, no doubt, that they were speaking truthfully and with integrity; that this is so is only testament to the way attacks against Islamic nations have become normalised in our thinking, and meanwhile we’ll see at least one more drone attack on Pakistan before the end of the week.

But it’s not only the middle east where Muslims are made to suffer, and just because westerners are terrifyingly unaware of as much, we shouldn’t assume Muslims are too. When was the last time you read an article about the Muslim population of the Philippines being bombed by the Christian state in Manila? Did you ever hear the one about 78 Thai Muslims suffocated in transportation by the Buddhist police detaining them? Occasionally, and only because of violent eruptions, we hear of the Muslim population of Uyghur, in north west China, being driven towards cultural extermination by the renaming of settlements, denial of job opportunities, and torture of activists. Each one of these brutal responses to legitimate political grievances have been welcomed under the umbrella of ‘anti-terror’ since September 11th 2001; just because the west chooses to remain clueless about this wider picture, we'd be wrong to assume that in an age of global media the Muslim community is similarly in the dark. Muslims do not have some peculiar complex of victimhood… Muslims are victims, and you can demonstrate as much without even needing to mention the monstrosities of justice that have taken place in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Guantanamo Bay.

In the aftermath of the recent violence, we will have Muslims depicted as highly strung and over sensitive, just as was done in the wake of the Mohammad cartoons. It’s true that healthy relations include both ridicule and criticism; we make fun of Germans for being uptight and efficient, we make fun of Brits for being inhibited, we make fun of Americans for being brash.  But we don’t drop bombs on them. If you want to make fun of people you really shouldn’t also wage a near constant and only vaguely justified war against them, and if you want to make such a war against them you shouldn’t make fun of them. Harmless jokes (not that ‘Innocence of Muslims’ was anything like it) might be acceptable amongst those with normal, healthy relations, but in a context of the endless slurs and violence that the west dispatch or permit against Muslims, you can understand how it might feel like the final straw. It is evidence of just how desensitised we are to the effects of drone attacks and air strikes that people will talk of the exercise of free speech, no matter how offensive, as no just incitement to killing people. We do genuinely seem to have forgotten that our foreign policies are killing Muslims on a daily basis, the uncomfortable truth is we just don’t care.

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