Photo Gallery: Eager for Escalation


'Innocence of Muslims' Governments and Islamists Exploit Film Protests

The protests against "Innocence of Muslims" are not just spontaneous outbreaks of rage. Radical Islamists and governments are exploiting the unrest for their own ends. In the process, it is hard for moderate Muslims to make their voices heard. By SPIEGEL Staff

On Sept. 14, shortly before the black Islamic flag was hoisted above the German Embassy in Khartoum, before the windows were shattered and before part of the building was eventually set aflame  amidst cries of "Allahu akbar," Rahmatallah Osman, an undersecretary in Sudan's Foreign Ministry, was sitting together with the German ambassador at his ministry. Tea and sweets were served. "The conversation proceeded in a markedly friendly atmosphere," the diplomat wrote to Berlin soon thereafter.

During the entire preceding week, Sudanese preachers and media sources had been fiercely attacking Germany and Chancellor Angela Merkel. In a press release from Sept. 12, Sudan's foreign minister complained about "the recent trend" by the German government to allow people who insult the Prophet Muhammad to demonstrate outside mosques. It also accused Angela Merkel of supporting people who dragged Muslim religious values through the mud.

Sudan's foreign minister was apparently conflating small protest marches by the regional German anti-Islam party Pro NRW  with a speech that Angela Merkel delivered in Potsdam, near Berlin, in September 2010. The occasion for the speech was the awarding of the M100 Media Prize to Kurt Westergaard,  one of the Danish cartoonists whose Muhammad caricatures sparked global protests by Muslims in 2005 and 2006.

But in his intimate talk with the German ambassador, Osman said that he hoped Germany would not take all of this the wrong way. He argued that the statement was solely targeted at the Sudanese population. With it, he continued, the Sudanese government was only trying to quell some domestic troubles. "In my view, we should leave it at that," the ambassador wrote to Berlin, "unless the coming days should bring any trouble."

Riding the Wave of Anger

The ambassador wrote that cable at 11:27 a.m. local time on Sept. 14. Less than four hours later, firebombs would be lobbed at the German Embassy. The ambassador's message is reminiscent of French King Louis XVI's diary entry on the day the Bastille was stormed: "Rien" ("nothing").

But more than anything, the conversation between the diplomats in Khartoum shows just how cynically the governments of some Muslim-majority countries deal with Internet phenomena such as the trailer for the anti-Islam film "Innocence of Muslims."

"If our regime would introduce more democracy, these kinds of riots would be impossible," Sudanese opposition leader Hassan al-Turabi told SPIEGEL. "The undemocratic elites in the Islamic world take advantage of outbreaks of anti-Western violence to justify their illegitimate rule."

It's a recurring pattern: Most governments of Islamic countries are wary about isolating anti-Western preachers and agitators because they either need or fear their backers. This leads them to simply ride out the wave of anti-Western sentiment, even when it occasionally gets out of control. It has much more to do with tactical calculations than with spontaneous outrage.

Venting Frustration

Last week, politicians and rabble-rousers exploited the protests once again. In Pakistan, the government of Prime Minister Raja Pervaiz Ashraf declared Friday to be "Love for the Prophet Day," thereby presenting outrage as a civic duty. Radicals sent the police to arrest, on blasphemy charges, one shop owner in the southern city of Hyderabad who didn't want to demonstrate.

The protests were mainly used as a way to vent growing frustration. Indeed, the fierce street battles waged between demonstrators and police in Karachi and Peshawar were by no means just about the Muhammad video. Instead, they were also about unemployment, about the rising cost of food, natural gas and gasoline, and about a chance to finally let off some steam. Tens of thousands of Pakistanis took to the streets in protest, and at least 21 people paid with their lives.

Pakistan's Railways Minister Ghulam Ahmad Bilour offered a bounty of $100,000 on Saturday for anyone who killed the maker of "Innocence of Muslims." On Monday, the Pakistani government distanced itself from the offer, however, saying it did not represent official policy.

On Tuesday of last week, a suicide bomber blew herself up next to a bus full of foreigners in Afghanistan. The group Hizb-i-Islami claimed responsibility for the attack. Although it was presumably meant to avenge the insult to Islam in the Muhammad video, the terror organization already sets off bombs frequently.

Vocal Minorities

Fears of such violence also led the French government to close French embassies, schools and cultural centers  in some 20 Muslim countries on Friday, as well as to ban protests in France against the film and the Muhammad caricatures  that were published by the satire magazine Charlie Hebdo on Wednesday, adding yet more fuel to the controversy.

The magazine's editors thought it would be funny to display several parts of the Prophet's body, including his anus. Since the normal print run of 75,000 copies sold out in a matter of hours on Wednesday, the magazine had a second run of 125,000 copies printed by Friday -- in what was a major coup for a struggling publication.

"We publish caricatures every week, but people only describe them as declarations of war when it's about the person of the Prophet or radical Islam," Charlie Hebdo editor-in-chief Stéphane Charbonnier said last week -- as if the magazine's issue had nothing to do with the riots triggered by the film. Charbonnier says it bothers him that many in the West want to show consideration for easily outraged Muslim extremists. "I'm not asking strict Muslims to read Charlie Hebdo," he said, "just like I wouldn't go to a mosque to listen to speeches that go against everything I believe."

Several hundred people also demonstrated in Germany on Friday in the cities of Freiburg and Münster. The issue of how to respond to Muslim outrage at the film and caricatures is also a highly contested issue among politicians and intellectuals. In a guest contribution to this week's issue of SPIEGEL, German writer Michael Kleeberg argues that people cannot allow themselves to bend to the will of radical Muslims. "The rules of a democracy are reasonable," he writes. "Implementing them without exception is a requirement for internal peace."

Eager for Escalation

In Iran, roughly a hundred demonstrators tried to storm the French Embassy. Protests in other countries were fairly minor. In Indonesia, the most populous Muslim-majority country with 200 million Muslims, only a few hundred people demonstrated outside Western embassies.

In Egypt, the ruling Muslim Brotherhood called on its members to steer clear of mass demonstrations. A government spokesman said that the "justifiable outrage" about the insult to the Prophet had already been clearly expressed. And, in Libya, thousands demonstrated against the violence. In Benghazi, protesters stormed the compound of the Islamic extremist group suspected of being behind the Sept. 11 attack on the US Consulate that left the American ambassador and three others dead.

However, those eager to see an escalation are mostly members of vocal minorities - and radicals such as Egyptian Salafist preacher Ahmad Ashoush, who issued a fatwa calling for the murder of those involved in making the film. The religious edict posted on his group's website calls for killing everyone who had anything to do with the film "including the producer, the director and the actors," and said that "their killing is a duty of every capable Muslim."

Majorities in both the Western and Islamic worlds have helplessly looked on as this cycle of provocation, protest and counter-provocation repeats itself. In recent weeks, calls for calm by Muslim scholars such as Dalil Boubakeur, rector of the Grand Paris Mosque, have been virtually drowned out. Mehmet Görmez, Turkey's highest Islamic authority as the head of its Religious Affairs Directorate, said: "No matter how base, banal and provocative the film might be, there is absolutely no justification in the Islamic faith for Muslims to attack embassies and murder people who are not involved." But radical Muslims ignored his statement.

Following a Familiar Pattern

This wave of Islamist protests follows a pattern that has already been seen many times -- with the Salman Rushdie affair , the uproar over the Muhammad caricatures in Denmark and the controversial lecture on Islam and violence  that Pope Benedict XVI delivered in the southeastern German city of Regensburg in 2006. It's a mixture of virile gestures, feelings of inferiority and lack of understanding exploited by sanctimonious hypocrites for their own purposes.

And, thanks to the Internet, something as insignificant as this amateurish Muhammad film can become a major event that has an impact around the world. Outspoken groups of anti-Western Islamists embraced new media long ago and, despite their contempt for all things Western, they know how to use them just as skillfully as right-wing populist and television preachers in the United States.

The suspected producer of the Muhammad video, the Coptic Christian Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, first showed segments of the film in late June in an almost empty cinema on Hollywood Boulevard, in Los Angeles. Nothing happened.

More than two months later, Morris Sadek, another Coptic Christian with Egyptian roots living in the US, uploaded an Arabic-language version of the trailer onto YouTube. To make sure that it got attention, he emailed a link to the video to everyone he could think of in the Arab world, including dozens of journalists in Egypt.

'I Only Transmitted the News'

On Sept. 8, 47-year-old Egyptian television host Sheikh Khalid Abdullah aired parts of the video on his "New Egypt" talk show. What is "new" about his show is that it provides a forum where Salafist hard-liners can disseminate their views, which would have been unthinkable under the regime of former President Hosni Mubarak.

Soon thereafter, Salafists were rioting outside the US Embassy in Cairo. One of the men there was Ahmed Abdallah, known by his nickname Abu Islam, who publicly tore up a Bible outside the embassy. Abdallah is the person behind "Maria TV," a recently launched women's satellite television channel featuring women who are entirely veiled except for their eyes. The channel is financed by Saudi Arabia, one of Washington's strategic allies.

"It's not like I made this film. I only transmitted the news," Khalid Abdullah told the Sunday Telegraph in mid-September. "It is funny that people in the West imagine that showing only two and a half minutes of the film on my channel was responsible for this whole crisis."

But the television personality might very well have known what he was doing. Indeed, anyone who succeeds in triggering a blasphemy-related media frenzy needn't worry anymore about his channel's viewer ratings. "Attack always sells, and the more ruthlessly it is waged, the greater the media reward will be," prominent German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk has written. The interconnectedness of modern global communications means that even a minimal attack is guaranteed to have a maximum effect. Ultimately, Sloterdijk writes, terrorism is "the art of getting yourself talked about."

'Explosions of Anger'

Media scholars call phenomena such as the hype surrounding the Muhammad trailer a "meme." Such memes can either arise spontaneously or be deliberately created. The crucial element is that they are capable of rapidly disseminating themselves via news websites, blogs or obscure television shows. Free-riders jump on board, and useful idiots -- such as the satire magazine Charlie Hebdo -- add more fuel to the fire. The German satire magazine Titanic, which has no qualms about offending religious sensitivities , announced last week that it also plans to publish an "Islam issue"  later this month.

And since there is no supreme authority within Sunni Islam when it comes to religious issues, there is nobody whose word could straighten everything out. Indeed, since the dawning of the Arab Spring, the argument over who has the ultimate authority on such issues has gotten even more heated. In Egypt and Tunisia, ultra-conservative Salafists are now laying claim to this role and accusing the Muslim Brotherhood of trying to curry too much favor with the West. The Salafists welcome every opportunity to make themselves look good next to Egypt's new rulers.

In response to the riots, Tariq Ramadan, an Oxford professor who is one of the best-known Muslim intellectuals in Europe, has written a cautious article titled "An Appeal to the Contemporary Muslim Conscience." In it, he calls for having "Islam's extraordinary diversity … be accepted and celebrated," and he writes that it is "the task of the elites, the leaders, of Muslim religious scholars and intellectuals to play a leading role in order to head off explosions of anger and mob violence."

Ramadan is familiar with Western intellectual history. He knows that there was a long-running battle during the Enlightenment about whether one should also be allowed to blaspheme the gods -- no matter whose gods they are.


Translated from the German by Josh Ward
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