Reza Aslan finds western reactions overblown
By Jessica Proett
During a two-hour talk in Paris last week, internationally acclaimed writer and Islam scholar Reza Aslan challenged the way we view violent protests against the "Innocence of Muslims" film in Libya, Egypt and elsewhere in the MENA. Aslan spoke at the Center for Political Research or Cevipof
as part of a short tour hosted by the British Council, the European Policy Center and the Parliament in Brussels to talk about current affairs, namely the recent media exposure of "Innocence of Muslims" and the satirical cartoons then appearing in France.
Aslan gave good news. Without brushing aside violence that resulted from recent protests, he contextualized it and stressed how the media headlines should have told a different story.
"Take a look back at 2006," Aslan said, "Look at what happened after the Danish cartoon which resulted in months of bloodshed and violence across the region, and compare that to what happened in 2012—a quick spurt of protests, some of which turned violent and then deteriorated."
Thousands of Muslim protestors filled the streets in 2006
The protests of 2006 were in the hundreds of thousands and lasted several months, in contrast to 2012's protests, which deflated within days and were small in number—"less than 500 in a country of 85 million and 20 to 25,000 in a region with 1.5 billion Muslims." These protests were miniscule and "had more to do with internal politics than with the film nobody saw," Aslan says, "especially in Egypt, where the only Arab station to air the trailer was owned by Saudi Wahabis and is the mouthpiece of the Salafi party Al-Nour—the main competition to the Muslim Brotherhood."
This suggests that the film was used more as a tool to test Morsi within an opportune political vacuum than as a rallying point to demonstrate a belief.
The protests we saw in the MENA back in 2006 were different because, according to Aslan, they were "top-down organized protests," by dictators who organized and then sustained them for their own political gain, which explains why they lasted longer and were more destructive. Also, "they were so huge because of the political culture at the height of the Iraq War and the War on Terror, which was quite rightly seen in large parts of the world as a war on Islam," Aslan continued. The cartoons of 2006 "fed into a larger narrative that activated the center of the Muslim world," where suddenly you had "people who shared nothing in common with extremists who saw this as yet another strike in a larger battle between the West and Islam."
Now six years later, many of these countries have democratic regimes, and the protests we saw were no longer top-down. They were unsustainable, first because there was no organizing principle from the top, and second, "the narrative that this film was a tool in America's war against Islam didn't work."
"It didn't work," stressed Aslan. Even though it "was a very deliberate attempt to provoke a violent response across the region," the significance is that the majority of Muslims shrugged it off and "almost nothing has happened." In a place where religious identity has become almost indistinguishable from cultural identity (sometimes even national), with religion becoming a unifying and distinguishing principle during Western colonialism, an affront to Islam is more than an affront to a religious way of life in today's world, and the lack of reaction in comparison to 2006 is what's significant.
What else is significant? 30,000 people, in contrast to the original few hundred protestors, demonstrated in Benghazi on September 21 in support of the US condemning the earlier violence of what we later knew was a well-organized terrorist attack carried out by an RPG7—something no ordinary protestor would bring to a rally.
We all saw photos of angry bearded men in Libya and Egypt, but where was the press coverage on the 30,000 Libyans showing solidarity, drowning out the voices of extremism? Not only did we get what we've asked for in the West when calling upon moderate Muslims to stand up and confront extremism, for the first time we saw "a cacophony of voices being able to comment on what was going on without fear of censure."
"In Libya you saw a robust conversation about the role of religion in society and the limits of free speech, that if you'd had six years ago you'd never be heard from again," says Aslan.
He called attention to the lunacy of referring to these protests as "Muslim Rage," and stressed that despite the cases of violence and lives lost, "This is the result of a new Middle East, something to be celebrated and thankful for."
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"The media narrative that the protests we saw were somehow the closing of the Arab Spring is—and I use this word very intentionally—a stupid
analysis," he says. If it weren't for the Arab Spring we truly could have had another 2006.
On the topic of the cartoons published in Charlie Hebdo
by Stéphane Chabonnier, Aslan was asked about his take on them and whether freedom of the press comes first or sensitivities should be catered to.
"Again, what I want to emphasize is you're missing the headline. This was also a deliberate attempt to provoke the French Muslim community into proving a point. I've had several conversations with Fleming Rose, the man who published the Danish cartoons, and he has an agenda. He thinks Muslims are not European and they don't share European values." He wants to prove it through provocation eliciting response. Again, the headline here should read, "It didn't work," says Aslan. Audience member Fati Tanriverdi, the director of a diversity organization in France, agreed. "It's so nice to hear something not necessarily politically correct but that's expressing our real opinions through a real discussion," Tanriverdi said. "It's just a provocation that we don't need to give more attention to."
Aslan pointed out the hypocrisy of implying somehow that Islam is not compatible with freedom of speech while stressing that he was a 100-percent staunch believer in upholding the freedom of the press and freedom of speech. He emphatically stated, "I am an absolutist when it comes to freedom of speech. I reject any kind of restrictions. That said, in Germany, YouTube will not allow any videos that have Nazi propaganda. In Turkey, YouTube will not allow any videos that mock Ataturk-and these are democratic countries, so let's not pretend it's just a Muslim issue" to cater to sensitivities.
In 2008, a homoerotic picture of the last supper was removed from a museum in Vienna for religious offense. An ad in France in 2005 featuring scantily-dressed women next to Jesus went to court for offensive content to Catholics, and all those ads were ordered to be removed by the court afterwards.
"For me, philosophically speaking, you should be able to have Nazi videos in Germany denying the holocaust. In Turkey you should be able to dress Ataturk in a dress and beat him with a stick, and it's ridiculous that in a democracy that type of free speech is illegal and you can't do that. That's my opinion. But," he stresses, "I have no patience for those who try to make a difference about the way Muslims react to something they find sacred."
Concluding the subject, he resolved, "There are many ways to prove the value of the freedom of press, and this wasn't one of them."
Throughout the talk, Aslan repeatedly drew the focus back to the good-news aspect of these current events. With the cartoons, he again drew a comparison between the European reaction of the 2012 cartoons with those of 2006, where "there were only two options; either you're a religious fascist, or for freedom of the press, and you need to pick one side and prove you're on it, either by protesting or republishing the cartoons."
This time most French people—Muslims and non-Muslims alike—shrugged the cartoons off as another attempt to inflame passions. Even after discussing the appalling spike in Islamophobia in the US recently, he still concluded, with a smile, that as a whole in Europe and the Middle East, "We all seem to be becoming more sophisticated."
Jessica Proett, a frequent contributor to the Levantine Review, is currently studying at the American University of Paris.