Ebrahim Moosa – Opinion | 18 September 2012
11 years after the cataclysmic events of 9/11 and the subsequent invasion of Afghanistan shook the world, and almost a decade since the sovereign nation of Iraq was deceptively looted, the Muslim World is tragically again finding itself engulfed in flames. Coming in the wake of heroic popular uprisings across the Middle East that shook the yoke of a deeply entrenched apparatus of dictatorial reign, and amidst a process of fresh nation building, the past week saw governments and citizens across the region grapple with a burgeoning crises – an untimely travesty threatening to unhinge a very sensitive phase of regional development: Sweeping protests have gripped major Muslim capitals; thousands have vented their rage at symbols of Western hegemony; officials have issued strongly worded statements; fatwas have been pronounced; variant Muslim groupings have traded accusations, and lives have been lost.
The supposed cause of such instability? One obscure and distasteful low-budget video clip whose origins are still shrouded in mystery. According to the consensus of reviewers, ‘The Innocence of Muslims’ lacks any artistic merit, has “atrocious” directing, “terrible” sets and is an “obscenely inept vanity project” whose quality is “far beneath any reasonable standard of movie making.”
Yet, quite inexplicably, this garbage has seemingly managed to successfully enlist the collective attention – intellectual, diplomatic and physical – of significant parts of the Muslim World.
It will be argued that the production touched a raw nerve with its blasphemous portrayal of Muhammad (SAW) – whose love is innate for every believer, and Muslims cannot fathom simply standing by idly as his noble character is attacked. Such a rationale is undeniably well-founded and noble. Still, I will assert, there is yet something additional sordidly lacking in our response, which potentially renders us guilty of abandoning a vital directive of the eternal teachings of the man whose honour we seek to defend(SAW).
Stemming from our insatiable appetite for instant news and perspectives, undoubtedly nurtured by the pervasiveness of 24-hour network news and social media, we have become tardy in applying a lofty Islamic requisite known as news verification. In fact, it is quite unsettling to perceive how swift we are to judge people and events based on a single report or interview – and that too originating from a contestable source. The Quraan commands believers to verify any news emanating from wicked or obscure avenues, in the interests of curbing harm and regret later on.
It is worthwhile in this regard to note that nearly all the information about the anti-Islam film and related developments that we have at our disposal, is attributable to media whose track record in accurately reporting Muslim issues is less than satisfactory.
Many in the Muslim world would have been exposed to the obscene video, others would have been incensed by merely hearing descriptions of it – yet, why would so few bother to investigate its origins prior to formulating a response. How is it possible for one such crass production to gain instant notoriety, whilst thousands of other videos, equally vile and unprofessional in nature, remain trapped in electronic oblivion? Why haven’t the public been able to access information regarding the film’s location permits and funding? What explanation do we have for the lethargy of authorities in pressurising video-sharing websites and social media networks to remove the offensive content, even as they publicly deem it to pose security threats? And what do we make of the mysterious drug dealing, bank-breaking jailbird director who, despite his alleged crimes, is merely “contacted” by the FBI, and this too out of concern for his own safety?
Glossing over these fundamental questions, many of us who turned on our TVs last week to be greeted with images of enraged youth in Libya and Egypt shouting Islamic slogans at the gates of the bastions of the US empire would be roused by the knee-jerk desire to “do something” to defend the honour of the most sacred personality in our faith. These selected images also fuelled the perception of widespread anger and violence spurned by film across the Islamic world. The trouble is, large parts of the narrative that spurred many Muslims into action, was problematic.
Even at that stage, “Innocence of Muslims” was largely obscure in most parts of the globe. The continued mention of the film, and suggesting it to be the fundamental cause of the protests, however served to ‘market’ it and improve its circulation amongst an unquestioning audience.
In Libya, even American officials now admit that the assassination of its ambassador there had nothing to do with fury over the video, but was rather a co-ordinated military assault by fighters whom the US itself may have supported in its quest to oust Muammar Qaddafi last year. The Independent reports that sensitive documents had gone missing from the consulate in Benghazi during the attack, including some reportedly detailing oil contracts. Still, mainstream media continue to lump together the killing of the ambassador and the violence, in what has already been an unstable Libya, with unrest related to the film from other parts of the world. Well-meaning Muslim organisations and scholars have also fallen into the same trap, speaking at length about Prophetic tolerance and character and issuing detailed critques of the alleged actions of fellow Muslims and the impermissibility of killing foreign envoys etc. – all without due consideration for the facts mentioned above.
Initial protests in Egypt also seem to have been the product of fringe groups, some of whom have been accused of fomenting sectarianism in the past. Notably, a group of hardcore football fans called the ultras were found to be at the forefront of clashes with Egyptian police outside the US embassy. Their slogans had little to do with the film and were comprised more of insults against the law enforcers, whom they hold long-standing grievances against for not halting a major football tragedy in Port Said earlier this year.
Thus, our hastiness in adopting a tailored conclusion with scant regard for news verification has moulded us into being fodder for a frenzy that has leached our resources and destabilised our lands. Failure to recognise the gravity of dubious information has the potential to cause rifts between nations, destroy amity and unity, and kindle discord and conflict.
In a remarkable address to the University of Stellenbosch Business School earlier this year that largely went unreported, former South African President Thabo Mbeki highlighted the fundamental role of knowledge in the process of social transformation and betterment of society. Specifically, he alerted delegates to the proliferation of “false knowledge” that he said was being toyed by decision makers to exercise “preponderant power” for selfish ends. Among the examples cited by Mbeki to illustrate such false knowledge was the 2003 war against Iraq where mythical weapons of mass destruction was offered as a justification for invasion, generating immense problems for both Iraq and the wider Middle East. He also noted the false knowledge advanced to allege that Muammar Qaddafi was about to slaughter millions of civilians in Libya, as a cover to overthrow the Libyan government and advance Western interests.
In both instances, a failure by the public to challenge the initial narrative of those in power, led to interventions and tragedies whose effect can now not be undone. Similarly, since 9-11, the Muslim community has been over-eager to deal with the fallout of certain events internally, but far less willing to question the veracity of the information made available to it in the first place. This has led us down the road of being repeatedly duped and believing ever more absurd official propaganda. The true perpetrators are absolved of scrutiny while we find ourselves pointing fingers accusingly and interrogating our own. There has never been a matter so seemingly simple, yet having so great consequence as false or distorted news that a nation believes or falls victim to. Quoting Huxley, Mbeki argues “irrationally held truths may be more harmful than reasoned errors.”
In the interest of our progress as a community, we need to curb this destructive trend of gratuitous information consumption and mindless news digestion. In doing so we will not only be upholding a Quranic precept, but also honouring the lasting legacy of our most Beloved Nabi SAW.