Whatever happened to the bright side of life…?

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“The innocence of Muslims’ pretty much exploded onto the global stage, although the video has been available online for some time. The 13+ minute clip is still available on YouTube. Numerous governments, however, have asked Google to block the film in their country. Not that it matters much, most of the protesters probably have not even seen the film, nor the cartoons a French magazine subsequently thought needed to be published to underline the value of freedom of expression. The outrage and violence this triggered has been in the headlines around the world for the past week. For today, the Pakistani government announced a public holiday, a “day of love for the prophet” for all Pakistanis willing to join the masses in protest against the film. Cities across Australia anticipate more protests this weekend after last weekend’s unrest in Sydney, and white nation standard-bearers call every good Aussie to the barricades for counter-protests, on nation-wide radio announcements replayed a wee while ago on NZ National Radio news.

Little is known about the filmmaker of the clip that got it all started (other than that he’s an Egyptian-born Coptic Christian U.S. citizen with a dubious track record of fraud and more than a dozen aliases to his name) or his motives. Not that that matters either. If one’s keen to find potentially offensive and insulting material on the internet, ‘The innocence of Muslims’ is not the one-stop shop for agitators looking for a trigger. Why, then, the sudden outburst of anger, something that’s happened periodically over the past years. You sure remember the Danish magazine Jyllands Posten’s cartoons in 2005, or Florida ‘churchman’ Terry Jones, who burnt copies of the Qur’an in 2010.

According to Bobby Gosh, who writes in TIME Magazine about The agents of outrage, the ensuing violence was due to “a sequence of provocations, some mysterious, some obvious”, and involved the filmmaker, an Egyptian TV host, Islamist extremist groups and certainly a few other agitators not accounted for. What’s more intriguing, however, is the broad popular anger this incident has provoked. Western embassies in some 20+ countries are either closed or have their staff fear for their safety. Gosh already paints the picture of a volatile mix of weak states and rogue provocateurs creating a region of chaos and instability. Time for the Arab autumn, then? But there’ve been protests beyond the Arab world as well, though the turnout wasn’t nearly as impressive, nor was the violence as deadly. Is the scale of the protest maybe indicative of the strength or legitimacy of the state that hosts it? What are we to make of Islamabad’s decision to officially invite the whole country to protest? An effort at managing the violence? Stimulating public debate? Or is it indicative of the divisions within Pakistani society and the country’s political elite?

Whatever the agenda that drives certain people or groups to manipulate crowds into such protests when it suits them, religion, and the values associated with it, is a powerful force to unite them. Rob, in his July blog, discussed the question of religion in IR in detail and highlighted some of the points that I’m sure would be relevant in dissecting the current cycle of physical and verbal violence groups at either ‘end’ of the debate throw at each other. Other than that, we have been somewhat silent on the matter of faith in IR, maybe reflecting the general tenet that religion and politics is too combustible a mix to handle, as Rob suggested.

All that leaders and authorities seem to be able to do is condemn the provocations and try to contain the backlash. Or, as BHOba did in his 4 July, 2009, speech at Cairo University in Egypt, pledge A new beginning for relations between the Islamic world and the U.S. (and, by extension, the West). Judged by the current violence, it does not appear to have had the desired effect. The U.S., in an effort to minimise damage, even bought some airtime on Pakistani TV to run 30-minute ads with excerpts of Obama and Clinton speeches post-‘innocence’.

Sandip Roy writes of a global industry of outrage that is nurtured by the socio-economic-political conditions that provide the grounds for agitators to manipulate their agendas. Addressing the gaps that exist would marginalise the radicals. I’m sure he has a point here, but what of the provocateurs that flourish in places like the U.S., Australia and France? One question that’s been raised in the context of the Danish and French cartoons is whether there’s a limit to satire and if so what that limit should be, which immediately raises the spectre of censorship to ‘our’ freedom of expression. But whatever happened to these other values we so cherish, tolerance and respect, for instance. It’s sadly hypocritical of enlightened satirists in France or god-fearing Americans to pick and chose of the catalogue of values we like to think of as ours. I’m not sure of the best approach to it, but a global blasphemy law is not it.

I guess they had it right back then:

Some things in life are bad,

They can really make you mad.

Other things just make you swear and curse.

When you’re chewing on life’s gristle,

Don’t grumble, give a whistle,

And this’ll help things turn out for the best, and…

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