The middle-east is up in arms in anger, chanting anti-US slogans. Muslims across the world have been deeply offended. US embassies are being targeted across the globe. Hard-line clerics and leaders from across the spectrum are rising up, inciting hatred and exhorting violence. Scores of people, including an American Ambassador, have lost their lives. And in the US, the issue has taken centre-stage in a presidential race that is just gathering steam. Sounds like a premise for a cheap paperback thriller. But no, this just happens to be the sad and infinitely more alarming reality of the times.
And even more painful and ridiculous is the fact that had this been a real paperback thriller, one wouldn't have to see a low budget, asinine excuse of a movie at the root of it all. Yet here we have it. Critics are unanimous in their opinion that for the movie "Innocence of Muslims" to be protected under the spirit of artistic freedom, it has to first qualify as "art", which it doesn't in any way. This was surely a hack job done with the sole purpose of raising hell by hurting the religious sentiments of what amounts to almost one-fourths of humanity.
This whole incident has raised memories of the Danish cartoon incident from the mid-2000s. That incident also involved western media depictions involving the Islamic prophet. While it can be argued that the Danish cartoons could at least claim some form of legitimacy in the whole 'freedom of speech and expression' debate, the "Innocence of Muslims" can have no such claims. Both stepped on the religious sentiments of muslims in a big way. Any pictorial depiction of the Prophet Muhammed is forbidden in Islam.
And Islamic culture doesn't have the same historical experience that evolved the western culture from a religious Christian society to a so called "secular society." A natural part of that transition in the west was the questioning of everything, even religion and god, and reducing what was till then sacred, to something open for ridicule. In the middle-east, Islam is still a vital aspect of their social, cultural and political life. So even something as trivial as a cartoon can become a very sensitive issue, especially if represented in the right (or wrong) way.
In this instance too, that seems to be happening. While the identity actual creators of the movie are still shrouded in mystery, it is clear that right-wing Christian leaders in the US like Terry Jones (of the Quran burning fame/infamy) are promoting this movie as part of their politics, and to stay in the spotlight. On the other side, as in the Danish incident, it seems to be the radical leaders and clerics who seem to be gaining the most leverage out of this issue.
Here you have a area that is already in turmoil, with revolutions and civic instability persisting across the board. The last thing that one needs for peace and stability in such a place is a new issue for people to get angry at the west and protest. And that is exactly what is happening there now. For the powers that be, anything that keeps the people distracted from the real things that need to be addressed is often the best formula to stay in power.
The situation in the US is as complex as in the middle-east. Since this was apparently a private funded project, the government has been quick to censure it, with Ms.Clinton categorically castigating the film. What with the tragic death of their Ambassador and the persisting threat to their embassies worldwide, Americans can hardly be expected to like this whole incident. But truth be told, it may not be all that bad for them in a way. For President Obama and his re-election bid, the international incident has shifted the focus away from a troubling home-front plagued by economic woes. His Republican opponent Mitt Romney has surely played a weak hand by jumping onto the Anti-muslim film controversy bandwagon in his criticism of the incumbent opponent. Obama would any day welcome a shift of focus to foreign affairs, arguably his stronger front.
Some conspiracy theorists would go even further to claim this as a full blown plot by US government to distract attention at home in an election year, and to push for more military intervention in the middle east. While that may seem a bit too far-fetched for most of us, any incident that increases tensions between the West and the Islamic world is surely far from welcome for most of those who wish for peace. But as we all know very well, not everyone profits from peace.
Those who benefit from chaos, violence and hatred will always try to use anything to further their goals, be it in the West or the East. Here, it is the devout muslim who is unwittingly becoming a pawn and being sacrificed for their stratagems. And that is the greatest tragedy of them all.
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