Monday, 17 September 2012

The Clash of Civilizations: The Muhammad Film and the Media Response

By Siobhan Holohan

You only need to watch a few seconds of the controversial film Innocence of Muslims to see how bad it is; bad as in unwatchable nonsense that is. But being bad does not stop it from being dangerous. The film depicts Muhammad as a womaniser, a homosexual, and suggests he engaged in acts of paedophilia. Of course this will be highly offensive to many Muslims; perhaps in the same way that many Christians were outraged by the 1988 film The Last Temptation of Christ (dir. Martin Scorsese) which depicted Jesus as a fallible human being. That film was also subject to violent protests by Christian groups who succeeded in delaying its release and persuading cinemas to pull the film from their screens. In fact the film remains banned in some countries.

Unlike The Last Temptation of Christ, however, Innocence of Muslims is not an attempt to interpret and understand a theological text, and I doubt it will ever be nominated for an Academy Award. Instead it was funded by an anti-Islamic group and its release on YouTube was dubbed into Arabic in a clear attempt to offend and incite violence in that part of the world. However, what is interesting about this clumsy attack on Islam is the response to the film. Not so much the protests, which were perhaps inevitable, but the reaction by Western news agencies and politicians. News agencies have for the most part squandered the opportunity to present a balanced account of the unfurling events in Egypt and Libya in the context of recent internal and external political events, and have instead fallen back on stereotypical imagery of bearded men burning flags and hyperbolic debate about repressive states versus the freedom of expression. This has been supported by public figures such as Tony Blair who have argued that while the film was "wrong and offensive [and] also laughable as a piece of film-making", goes on to state that "what is very dangerous and very wrong is the [Islamist] reaction to it" (BBC News Online).

This is a typical narrative turn that locates the blame for violence firmly back in the Muslim camp, while playing down the role that Western agencies may have had in the escalating events. The news coverage replicates what we have seen countless times before by showing Muslims to be irrational, violent 'religious fundamentalists' against some kind of idealised form of Western rationality. And until we can recognise this discursive trap we will be in danger of repeating it forever.