Friday, September 14, 2012

Muslim protests coincide with a grim anniversary

Anti-American protests, many of them violent, that are spreading like a California wildfire at United States diplomatic missions across the middle east and northern Africa, have at this writing resulted in several deaths and scores of injuries.  As you have heard on the news, the protests have focused on a 14-minute trailer for an amateur film made in the U.S. that mocks the prophet Mohammad.  While there have been cinders on the ash for some time -- in Cairo, for instance, the United States is widely viewed as supporting Mubarak much too long before belatedly and perhaps cynically throwing its rhetorical support behind the Arab Spring -- the appearance of a film disrespecting Islam has proven an explosive catalyst.

On a side note, I'm not sure how closely I associate what happened in Benghazi with the other protests.  The attack on our embassy there resulted in the murder of our ambassador, J. Christopher Stevens, and other staff members there.  Witnesses, however, deny accounts that this attack emerged from a protest; there is some suggestion that this was a large-scale and premeditated attack.  It might have had to do with the anniversary of September 11 rather than the video itself.  The matter, however, is still being investigated, events are moving quickly, and new information is being revealed through these days.

People have taken to the streets in Yemen, Egypt, Tunisia, Lebanon, Sudan, Indonesia, and Nigeria, denouncing the United States explicitly because of this strange video.   Some are adamant that the government must have been involved in its production.  Some call for the United States to punish the filmmakers, as would be done in their own countries.  And some reason that because the United States has not punished the filmmakers, this amounts to a state endorsement of the film.

So some of the discussion -- among those paid to discuss current events -- has been about the value of freedom of speech, to what extent this value is appreciated in the "arab world" (conceived almost as a different planet), and whether the United States could successfully "explain" or "teach" the concept of freedom of speech to people of the Islamist republics.  Some protesters understand it quite well, thank you, yet argue that this was an irresponsible use of that freedom, knowing it would touch off protests that can quickly spiral into riots.

Some of this sounds familiar. 

Nowhere yet have I seen it pointed out that this coincides very closely with the publication of the novel that touched off the grand master of all Islamist controversies: Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses first appeared on 26 September 1988, twenty four years ago.  The letters and phone calls began almost immediately, and the long list of countries banning the book was initiated within a month.  The following February, the Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa calling for the death of Rushdie as well as anyone involved in the translation, editing, and publication of the novel.  Several people were killed as a direct result, and several more survived assassination attempts.  Rushdie went into exile under 24-hour armed guard, changing residence every three days or so for several years.  It was the incident over which the UK and Iran severed diplomatic relations.

And despite the novel's considerable literary merit and critical acclaim, some argued that Rushdie brought this on himself, that he should have anticipated controversy.  (And done what?)  Some even held him personally responsible for those who died in riots and stampedes far, far away from London.  Some criticized Rushdie for accepting state protection from the government he had criticized -- using a logic that eerily parallels the logic by which some muslims condemned him for criticizing his family's religion.  (Rushdie was raised in a Muslim household, and thus his blasphemy made him an "apostate."  It's one thing if I criticize Islam; quite another for a muslim to do it.) 

On the occasion of Rushdie's knighthood in 2008, I wrote this post about my encounter with the book at the time of the riots and Rushdie's exile.

And next Tuesday, Rushdie's highly anticipated memoir of that period of exile, entitled Joseph Anton, is due to appear.

[Image: 1988 anti-Rushdie protest]

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