On September 12, the day after the attacks on the US diplomatic missions in Egypt and Libya, the New York Times set out to explain what it called the “anguished relationship between the United States and the Muslim world”. According to the Times, the “Muslim world” was prone to outbursts of violence, and the reaction to the 14-minute anti-Islam movie trailer The Innocence of Muslims was both baffling and predictable. “Once again, Muslims were furious,” wrote reporter Robert F Worth, “and many in the West found themselves asking why Islam seems to routinely answer such desecrations with violence.”
Other media outlets echoed the claim that “the Muslim world” was consumed by anger, and had long been so. The Associated Press offered a look back at “Five other incidents that inspired rage in the Muslim world”, crediting over a billion people for the actions of a few thousand in their search for historical continuity. Others took a psychoanalytic approach. “Why is the Muslim world so easily offended?” asked Washington Post columnist Fouad Ajami. “Madness in the Muslim World: Help Me Understand,” pleaded a blogger for the Houston Chronicle.
It is time to retire the phrase “the Muslim world” from the Western media. Using the phrase in the manner above disregards not only history and politics, but accurate reporting of contemporary events. The protests that took place around the world ranged in scale and intensity, in the participants’ willingness to use violence, and in their rationales. The majority of the “Muslim world” did not participate in these protests, nor did all of the Muslims who protested the video advocate the bloodshed that took place in Libya.
By reducing a complex set of causes and conflicts to the rage of an amorphous mass, the Western media reinforce the very stereotype of a united, violent “Muslim world” that both the makers of the anti-Islam video and the Islamist instigators of the violence perpetuate.
Essentialist views of Islam and Muslims are nothing new. In Western media, Islam is often presented as a contagion, with Muslims as the afflicted, helpless to their own hostile impulses. What is different about the current crisis is that it comes in the aftermath of the “Arab Spring” – another series of intricate events depicted as interconnected and inevitable. Democracy would “spread” from one Muslim country to another, analysts argued, regardless of the unique historical trajectories of individual states. Some analysts went so far as to suggest it would spread to Central Asia, a region of largely isolationist dictatorships uninfluenced by Middle Eastern politics. The current protests are being portrayed as an “Arab Winter” – a simplistic reversal of a simplistic perception of success, with Muslims, undifferentiated, receiving the blame.
There is, of course, cohesion among Muslims, in the sense that there is cohesion among followers of any faith. The notion of the ummah is an essential part of Islamic doctrine. But the way the idea of “the Muslim world” is expressed within Islamic communities is different from the way it is expressed outside them. It is rare to hear the phrase “the Christian world” used in the English-language media, because doing so would generalise about the motives of over 2 billion people. No such respect applies to the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims. Googling the phrase “the Christian world” yields 5.8 million results, while the phrase “the Muslim world” gives over 87 million results, many of them wondering what is “wrong” with the queried target. When the phrase “the Muslim world” is invoked, it is usually to reduce, denigrate or impugn.
The Western media’s broad-stroke regionalism means that conflicts within individual Muslim-majority states become marginalised. Syrians posting on Twitter wondered how the world could give so much attention to a conflict that killed seven people while dozens of Syrians are killed by state security forces every day – documenting, as one commenter noted, their own demise in videos that receive far less attention than the bigoted pseudo-cinema of one American. Similarly, the violence at the diplomatic missions in Cairo and Benghazi was initially conflated, with “Muslim rage” being presented as a root cause for two distinct conflicts. The tendency to see “the Muslim world” as a problem in general means that specific problems within Muslim countries go unseen.
Soon after the destruction of the US embassy in Benghazi and the deaths of four Americans, a protest was held against the men who murdered them. Libyan citizens held English-language signs declaring “Benghazi is against terrorism” and “Sorry Americans this is not the behavior of our Islam and Profit [sic]”. Photos of the protest, distributed by Libya Alhurra Livestream, went viral on Facebook and Twitter.
The Libyans protesting were aware that not only Libyans, but Muslims in general, would be blamed for the violence that took place, because the small group of Muslims who stormed the embassy would be seen as representative of all. They gave the rare apology that Western commentators often encourage Muslims to make on behalf of others who commit violence in the name of Islam. But while the sentiment of the protestors is appreciated by many Americans – and the photos likely assuaged some prejudices – such explanations should not be necessary. Ordinary people should not be assumed to share the beliefs of violent criminals who share their faith.
The Innocence of Muslims was made by Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, an Egyptian-American who hates Muslims. It was found on YouTube and put on Egyptian television by Sheikh Khaled Abdullah, a man trying to convince the world that Americans hate Muslims. This was a perfect storm of gross and deceitful parties depicting each other in the most vile terms, and then living up to each others’ worst expectations.
The answer to such invective is not to reinforce it through media portrayals of “Muslims” as a collective. The media should instead pay more attention to individual states, conflicts and leaders, since dictatorship and factionalism have been as essential in shaping politics in Muslim-majority regions as has religion. The current crisis demonstrates how corrupt parties use religion as an incitement to violence and a means to political gain. The Western media should not play party to their prejudices.
Sarah Kendzior is an anthropologist who recently received her PhD from Washington University in St Louis.