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Saturday, 15 September 2012

Anti-Islam movie can promote change in Egypt

A still from the movie at the centre of the troubles.
It suggests a truly odd piece of cinematography, the movie trailer at the centre of the current crisis of identity in the Muslim world. The Innocence of Muslims, a 14-minute YouTube video purportedly made by a US citizen who is also a Coptic Christian, Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, has sparked protests in Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, Sudan, Yemen, Afghanistan, Palestine, Iraq, Lebanon and Nigeria. The US president, Barack Obama, has asked YouTube to "review whether it violates their terms of use". In California, where Nakoula lives, authorities are reviewing his probation; Nakoula was convicted on bank fraud charges in 2010. Under the terms of his probation he is not allowed to use the internet. Of course, it's not clear who loaded the video to YouTube.

The movie trailer itself is so strange as to be practically incomprehensible (that is, if I've actually seen the movie in question!). It contains a mishmash of scenes including an anti-Christian riot in which a Christian woman is hacked to death by frenzied Muslims, a curious story about the birth of the Islamic prophet Muhammad, and other bits and pieces spliced together. The quality of the acting is hard to gauge as the production values are so astonishingly low, and in some scenes words have even been dubbed onto the original scene, why it is not clear. In short, the movie trailer has the charm of a high school social studies project. But it also has at its core what appears to be a deep sense of dissatisfaction bred of generations of discrimination against Christians in Muslim countries such as Egypt. (Copts make up about 10 percent of Egypt's population.) Egypt's president, Mohamed Morsi, who was elected to govern earlier this year, has asked Egyptians to stay calm:
"I call on everyone to take that into consideration, to not violate Egyptian law . . . to not assault embassies," Mr Mursi said on Thursday. "I condemn and oppose all who . . . insult our prophet. [But] it is our duty to protect our guests and visitors from abroad."
Morsi's political party is the Muslim Brotherhood, a social force that was stifled for decades under the caudillo Hosni Mubarak, and it is an Islamist party. If Nakoula's aim was to criticise the new government in Egypt, there has been no acknowledgement by Morsi or his party of what events or laws might have inspired the filmmaker.

Obama is currently in the air en route to Libya where he will attend a ceremony in memory of the US embassy staff killed during protests in Benghazi, where the anti-Western voilence started. Along with Morsi, Obama has an impossible task ahead of him. As the Guardian noted early this morning:
The president, the secretary of state and other top officals have condemned the video but said it is protected under the right to free speech. 
 "We do not stop individual citizens from expressing their views, no matter how distasteful they may be," Secretary Clinton said yesterday.
The reaction to the film in the Muslim world seems to reflect a perception among people living there that governments have the power to suppress speech. By attacking take-away food stores and embassies these protesters seem to be saying, "The movie was made by a US citizen, so the US government should ban the movie immediately." Of course such a view ignores the kind of fundamental rights embedded in Western democracies - and especially in the US, where speech is protected in the Constitution - where those rights have developed over centuries and are considered to be inalienable elements of citizenship. The law is unambiguous, but by the same token the law in Muslim countries is equally unambiguous: denigration of the prophet Mohammad is illegal.

It is inconcievable that Western politicians will change the laws they administer. For their part, politicians in Muslim countries such as Egypt (especially Egypt) should reflect on the reason the film was made so that its root cause - discrimination against the Christian minority in Egypt - may furnish grounds for discussion in a reasoned and calm way within the polities they represent. The kinds of discrimination faced by Copts are of the same tribal nature as that which has caused violent discord elsewhere; closest to home from my point of view being the post-liberation voilence in East Timor that caused Australia to place peacekeepers on the ground in the capital, Dili, a few years ago.

The basic question is one of identity particularly in Muslim countries, such as Egypt, that suddenly are home to populations that are able to decide how they are governed. What is the basis of identity? Is it ideology? Is it family? Is it religion? A tribal culture will always have difficulties transitioning from autocratic rule to rule by popular franchise. Problems such as corruption are tribal in nature, and the problems that Copts experience in Egypt originate in the same place. In a sense it's a matter of allegiance. If your allegiance is to a tribe then you - if you are in a position of authority - will be severely tempted to favour in a material way those who belong to your tribe. For people outside that tribe your allegiance will then lead to distrust in authority. There will be a perception that you do not administer your role for the general good, so it becomes a matter of equality. And equality - one person, one vote - is at the root of democracy. So tribalism is anti-democratic, and cannot be sustained indefinitely without resort to violence.

The movie at the centre of the strife is certainly bad, from a purely artistic viewpoint, but you do not see dedicated fans of the art of cinema torching US embassies because it offends their aesthetic sensibilities! And it is certainly offensive, and designed to be so. But it is possible to draw lessons from this clash of legal systems that can lead to positive outcomes. US authorities have said they will look at options, and they are doing so. It lies with Morsi and his government to also look at what can be done to ensure that this kind of movie does not need to be made in future. The responsibility, now, rests with lawmakers in Egypt - and by extension with the Egyptian media and with Egyptians themselves - to discuss ways to change their polity and so to prevent more bad movies about the prophet Mohammad from being made.

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