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Jamie Bartlett

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Calming the Riots

Posted: 21/09/2012 11:56

The riots taking place in many Muslim majority countries are contributing to a growing polarisation between 'the West' and Islam. Three factors mean this will only get worse - and remedy is needed.

First, the demonstrations are based on a misunderstanding in much of the Muslim world of how liberal democracies work. We benefit from being able to write, print and publish things that are offensive (and of little artistic merit) without interference by the government. Of course, you know this: it is the lifeblood of any free society, and must not be sacrificed. In many of the countries in which the riots are taking place, that distinction does not exist, and is consequently
not understood.

Therefore, anything produced in America or France is American or French - sanctioned by the great Satan - rather than the creation of one foolish individual lucky to live in a society free enough to permit his indulgences. As I argued http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2012/09/12/does-mideast-democracy-complicate-diplomacy/conspiracy-theories-fuel-anti-western-sentiment-in-the-middle-east, in many Muslim majority countries, anti-Western conspiracy theories are ubiquitous, based on these misconceptions, which further fuels anti-Westernism.

Second, it suits the leaders of these countries - or those orchestrating the demonstrations - to keep the mob in this state of permanent and misdirected fury. Hassan Nasrallah called on 'those who support and protect the producers, namely the US administration' to be held accountable. In Iran, Ayatollah Khamenei predictably blamed "evil Zionists" and the US government for creating the film. Drawing on the broad well of anti-Americanism is an easy political win, the
equivalent of the Conservative party promising a 'crackdown' on illegal immigration.

Third, modern communications have lowered the barriers of entry to mass provocation. Before the wide availability of video sharing platforms, this shoddy film would have been seen by a handful of people, and petered into obsucrity. In fact, the frustrating logic is that it would not have even been made - what would have been the point? Copycat films are probably being rushed to production by aspiring touble-makers as we speak - I could make one at home if I
wished.

The difference with the Satantic Verse riots is that the offending item was written by one of the world's most gifted creative writers, and subsequently taken to a mass market by a mega-publishing house. That it is now possible for one irresponsible individual to create such storm with a few dollars and access to the Internet means dealing with points 1) and 2) are all the more pressing.

 

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