The uproar surrounding the controversial film ‘Innocence of Muslims’ is receiving too much attention in the international media. This is unnecessarily turning back the clock to the period of polarization between Islam and the West, immediately after 9/11, which is precisely the goal the film-makers had in mind, according to Dr Vivienne Matthies-Boon, University Lecturer with the department of International Relations and International Organization of the University of Groningen and researcher with the new Centre for Religion, Conflict and the Public Domain.
There is a danger that the polarization will lead to the demands made for socioeconomic rights and political freedom during the Arab Spring in the Middle East being overshadowed, says Matthies. ‘In addition, polarization plays right into the hands of the relatively small group of radical Islamists and other extremist groups, as it makes them appear larger and more important than they really are. This will not help the fragile democratic process in these countries at all.’
Matthies therefore advocates a more nuanced approach to reporting that pays attention to, for instance, the counterforces in the Islamic world that reject the violence spawned by the film. ‘Although the papers mention in passing that the resistance is not broadly supported, I still feel the disturbances are being paid too much attention’, says Matthies.
‘If you look at the heated response to the film, and the resulting reaction, you tend to forget that the vast majority does not agree with this at all. My own contacts in the Arab world, whether at universities or “in the street”, assure me that people are really concerned about other things. Take Egypt, for example: people have other problems to cope with, such as a public transport strike, sky-high bread prices, a failing healthcare system, grave problems in education and the new constitution. These are the major news stories there, but they are being overlooked abroad’, Matthies explains. She certainly does not want to downplay the violence, which included the murder of the American ambassador to Libya, but does want to stress that this is not ‘Islam’ speaking, but marginal extremist factions.
‘The actions of these groups are being rebutted in the countries where they occur, where people are criticizing the violence. Take the speech the Tunisian president Marzouki made offering apologies to the American people. We also need to realise that political convictions, such as an abhorrence of Western colonialism, but also other left-leaning or nationalist views, are often stated in religious terms in these countries. It is perhaps the duty of the more moderate parties to explain precisely what they mean by this, but in that case people in the West must be prepared to listen to them.’
Matthies worries that the rift between the West and the Arab world is purposely being widened by this film, and that the stronger differences could cause a vicious circle. According to her, the film-makers Nakoula, Klein and Sadek are from the same world of fanatical American Christians as the infamous Reverend Terry Jones, and stem from the same internet environs as hate prophets like Anders Breivik.
‘They want to make themselves heard because they fear that thanks to the Arab Spring “fundamentalists” who are bent on world supremacy have come into power. In addition, the political power of evangelical Christians in the United States has greatly increased. These are voices that have become more important in politics and that have an interest in defining themselves in the ongoing debate, certainly with the US elections in the offing. This is a huge problem, as the clash of views has now been adopted by the general media and is setting the tone of the debate. It’s almost as if we’re back in the days directly after 11 September 2001.’
This means, says Matthies, that we need to be more cautious and nuanced when labelling groups. ‘It is for example important to distinguish between Salafists/Wahhabists and more moderate groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood, who are often wrongly depicted as being extremely fundamentalist. Although the Muslim Brotherhood is certainly conservative, with regard to politics it is much more pragmatic and thus not fundamentalist in nature.’ Now that the Arab Spring has shown what the consequences are of suppressing Islam in, for instance, Egypt, polarization is not to be advised, according to Matthies. ‘We need to maintain a good relationship with all social groups in these countries. We need to concern ourselves with children’s rights or with shelter for all citizens, and not exacerbate the conflict any further.’
Dr Vivienne Matthies-Boon (Dordrecht, 1978) has been working as a University Lecturer in the department of International Relations and \International Organization of the University of Groningen since 2010. Prior to that she lived in the United Kingdom for fourteen years, where she worked as a University Lecturer in sociology. Matthies recently became a fellow at the new Centre for Religion, Conflict and the Public Domain at the University of Groningen. Her interests include critical theory, the political theory of the Middle East and Egyptian politics.
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