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Local factors play part in protests

Publication Date : 24-09-2012


Religions are not monolithic, as reaction to anti-Islam film shows


The recent rage against the anti-Islam film turned deadly in Pakistan, resulting in the deaths of 19 people, including three police. It was the deadliest day since the film was released just over a week ago.

Washington has condemned the movie. And at least one of the actresses in this amateurish production that was intended to insult Muslims came out of hiding to express her regret and claim she was duped by the producer into taking part in this film that set off a big fuss in the Muslim world.

It is understandable why Muslims feel offended by the film that was produced by an Egyptian Coptic Christian living in America.

The Coptic community was quick to disown the filmmaker, who was reported to have had a string of shady and illegal business deals that landed him in US jails.

But to treat these demonstrations, peaceful or not, as an extension of the Islamic faith would be misleading. Muslim politics and political activities, and the political activities of all non-Muslims for that matter, are essentially local.

The saying that Islam is both "religion and state" often misses the point that the role of the religion, as well as any other religion for that matter, is not monolithic.

Like any other rallying cry, the slogan is a creation of its time. But the fact that it is a slogan does not make the statement any less meaningful for the supporters and the people who are against it, however.

Some leaders in the Islamic world have gone so far as to suggest that all Muslims must embrace this worldview, as well as make Islamic laws the basis of their modern state.

Those who are against such an idea, Muslims and non-Muslims, also found themselves caught up in a mindset that basically treats these demonstrations as a simple extension of one's faith. If anything, it points to the fact that people are preoccupied with state power.

Regardless of one's slogans and ideals, the business of politics, and the power struggle that comes with it, will bring this grand sentiment down to earth in a harsh way.

Remember how quickly the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt readjusted their position following the election victory? It is one thing being in the opposition and an entirely different thing being in charge and having to think about how best to deliver goods and services to all people, even the ones who didn't vote for you.

Debate on Islam

Indeed, debate about the role of Islam in global politics should not be one-dimensional. What drives political ambition and political behaviour are often local issues that have to be understood in the local context.

The Arab Spring was a reaction against state injustices. But changes also pave the way for new battlegrounds. Players include extremists, secularists, liberals, Islamists, all of whom are competing for parliamentary seats, or whatever institutions may spring up, so they can shape the future direction of their newly liberated country and society.

Naturally, in these societies dark forces are at work, driven by anger over the lack of political space, poverty, repression and injustice.

Some people go to the ballot box to make these changes and form institutions. Others, like the extremists in Libya who carried out a premeditated attack with rocket launchers and machine guns against the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya, chose to exploit the unrest for their own agenda.

The attack resulted in the deaths of US Ambassador J Christopher Stevens and three of his officers, as well as eight Libyans.

Hassan Nasrallah, the Shiite leader of the Hezbollah, recently led a huge anti-America demonstration in Lebanon to revive his own popularity that has taken a beating over this past year because of his stubborn alliance with the Syrian regime that has no qualms about killing their own citizens just to get at the rebels.

If anything, the death of Ambassador Stevens reinforced the worst fear of people who see Muslims through the lens of intolerance.

While Muslims in Libya are not happy with the film that attacks their religion, about 30,000 Libyans in Benghazi came out to show moral support for the death of the American ambassador. Some held up signs saying, "... Libya lost a friend".

Later that evening, they stormed the base camp of the Ansar al-Sharia, an extremist group that has been linked to the attack on the US consulate in their city. Four people lost their lives in the attack but in the end, the militant group left town.

For this extremist group, reality, it seems, came a little too soon.


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