Feigning innocence: the politics of demonization

Empowering Weak & Oppressed

Fahad Ansari

Dhu al-Qa'dah 14, 1433 2012-10-01

Main Stories

by Fahad Ansari (Main Stories, Crescent International Vol. 41, No. 8, Dhu al-Qa'dah, 1433)

The blasphemous US-produced movie, while denounced by US officials, is still defended on the basis of free speech. History, however, shows that publishing racist, anti-religious tracts has been punished. Julius Streicher, publisher of a racist, anti-Jewish tabloid, Sturmer, was hanged after a military trial at Nuremberg accused of aiding and abetting the slaughter of Jews. He was not a member of the Nazi party nor was he in Hitler’s military.

On 16 October 1946, Julius Streicher was hanged at Nuremberg after being convicted by an International Military Tribunal for crimes against humanity. Streicher was not a member of the Nazi military and did not take part in planning the Holocaust or the invasion of any country. He was the publisher of a tabloid newspaper, Der Stürmer, which for 22 years denounced Jews in the most crude, vicious, and vivid ways. Despite its increasing popularity, the newspaper was even condemned by many Nazi leaders at the time and Streicher was brought before the German courts on several occasions.

Despite Der Stürmer not being an official arm of the Nazi government, Streicher’s pivotal role in inciting loathing and hatred of Jews was considered significant enough to include him in the indictment of Major War Criminals before the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg. In essence, the prosecutors took the line that Streicher's incendiary speeches and articles made him an accessory to murder, and therefore as culpable as those who actually ordered the mass extermination of Jews.

The world said “Never Again.” Never Again to genocide; Never Again to ethnic cleansing; Never Again to concentration camps; Never Again to the systematic demonization of the “other” which inevitably led to the atrocities of the Holocaust.

Yet, almost 90 years after Der Stürmer was first published, the world appears to be suffering from a bout of collective amnesia. In recent years, the rising tide of anti-Muslim hysteria has drowned out all voices of reason and reminders from history. Camouflaged in the rhetoric of anti-terror, counter-extremism, and freedom of speech, the rank hatred and loathing of Muslims and Islam has become the acceptable face of racism today, as exemplified by the recent condemnations of the demonstrations in the Muslim world against the virulently inflammatory and Islamophobic film, The Innocence of Muslims.

The film, produced by an Egyptian Coptic Christian Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, is graphically Islamophobic and portrays the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) as a fool, a philanderer, a womanizer, a homosexual, a child abuser and a religious fake (nastaghfir-allah). His followers are portrayed in the film as savage killers hungry for wealth and bent on killing women and children. The film resulted in mass demonstrations throughout the Muslim world and attacks on diplomatic missions in several countries resulting in several deaths. Reminiscent of the Rushdie fatwa over two decades ago, a Pakistani minister placed a $100,000 bounty on Nakoula’s head, going as far as to publicly request assistance from the Taliban and al-Qaeda to kill him.

Critics of the demonstrations present themselves as proponents of absolute free speech and argue that Muslims should not be offended by criticism of their religion. One of their more crass arguments is that the production is so shoddy and substandard that Muslims should carry themselves above it. This belittles the actual sentiment behind the insults which should be judged according to their content and the intention of the offender and not how articulate the insult may or may not be. In fact, from its first issue, Der Stürmer was also directed to that lowest common denominator that Hitler thought the proper target of propaganda. Heinz Preiss, a young scholar who attached himself to Streicher after 1933, becoming his court historian, accurately described Streicher's intent,
Since he wanted to capture the masses, he had to write in a way that the masses could understand, in a style that was simple and easy to comprehend. He had recognized that the way to achieve the greatest effect on an audience was through simple sentences. Writing had to adopt the style of speaking if it were to have a similar effect. Streicher wrote in the Stürmer the way he talked… The worker who came home late at night from the factory was neither willing nor able to read intellectual treatises. He was, however, willing to read what interested him and what he could understand. Streicher therefore took the content from daily life and the style from speech. He thus gave the Stürmer its style, a style which many intellectuals could not understand, but which fundamentally was nothing but the product of his own experience gained over the years.

As with the demonization of Muslims today, Streicher regularly published cartoons and stories about Jewish involvement in cases of alleged sexual criminality, murder and intolerance with the same allegations endlessly repeated. Innocence of Muslims must be seen in this context — the latest in what has become a regular and routine attack in the media on Muslims, Islam and the Prophet of Islam (pbuh), designed not to stimulate intellectual debate and understanding but simply to incite hatred against the followers of Islam. From Rushdie’s Satanic Verses to the Danish cartoons to Qur’an burnings and the daily sensationalist anti-Muslim headlines and op-eds, the freedom being sought is not one to criticize or to express oneself but one to insult and abuse.

The writer, producer and distributor of the film, Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, is an Egyptian-born Coptic Christian based in the US who originally identified himself as an Israeli-Jew, using the pseudonym “Sam Bacile,” and said that he collected $5 million from Jewish friends to fund the movie. The alleged Bacile told the Wall Street Journal that he made the film to expose “Islam as a hateful religion” and also described Islam as a “cancer.” It is quite clear that Nakoula deliberately intended to not just stoke up hate against Muslims but by identifying himself as an Israeli Jew, was determined to exploit existing divisions between Muslims and Jews.
It is not Muslim “intolerance” that the world should be condemning today but Western tolerance of those who seek only to abuse, insult and demonise and thereby foster the climate which facilitates genocide. The reaction from the Muslim world is a reasonable and understandable one. In retrospect, nobody would dare criticize Jewish communities in the 1930s had they rioted against publications such as Der Stürmer if the ultimate effect was that it would have prevented the Holocaust, even if those riots led to the loss of scores of innocent lives. The current reaction stems from a lack of confidence in the leadership of the Muslim world to take any meaningful action against such abuse leaving it to the mob to seek vigilante justice in whatever form it can. In the West, the authorities and the courts will protect what they hold to be sacred from similar abuse through injunctions and prosecutions and so the public anger and feeling is appeased.

A few examples will suffice. In the same week as Muslims have been condemned for not tolerating free speech, Azhar Ahmed, a Muslim teenager in Britain was convicted of sending a “grossly offensive communication” after posting a message on his Facebook page that “all soldiers should die and go to hell.” He awaits sentencing for the comments which the judge described as “derogatory, disrespectful and inflammatory.” Meanwhile in France, a court banned French magazine Closer from re-publishing or distributing photographs in France of the Duchess of Cambridge, Princess Kate, sunbathing topless. The injunction was granted at the same time that another French magazine Charlie Hebdo published a new series of cartoons mocking the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) for no other reason than to insult and offend Muslims.

When Muslims complained, they were told that freedom of expression was a fundamental right. In September 2011, British fashion designer John Galliano was convicted for making “public insults based on origin, religious affiliation, race or ethnicity” after making anti-Semitic comments in public. On the same note, Holocaust denial remains a crime in several European countries. In September 2010, the Advertising Standards Agency in the UK banned an ice cream company from using an advert displaying a pregnant nun eating ice cream in a church, together with the strap line “immaculately conceived.” The ASA said that the advert “was likely to be seen as a distortion and mockery of the beliefs of Roman Catholics” and “likely to cause serious offence to readers, particularly those who practised the Roman Catholic faith.” The ASA banned another advert for the same company (Antonio Federici) in July 2009 that showed a priest and a nun appearing as if they were about to kiss.

The War on Terror has seen several Muslims in the UK and US, such as Ahmed Faraz and Tarek Mehanna, sentenced to lengthy spells in maximum security prisons for no greater offences than publishing books and articles critical of Western foreign policy and promoting the political and military aspects of Islam. No freedom of expression for these young Muslims.

In contrast, there is no such procedure in the Muslim world or in the Western world to protect the sensitivities of Muslims, thereby leading to the type of angry demonstrations that we are witnessing. One can predict that were no systems in place to address public anger in the West about insults to things the public holds sacred, there would be similar large scale demonstrations, and these would not be limited to elements of the far right. Muslims are denied such protection. They are insulted and abused, mocked and ridiculed, demonised and ostracised and told to get over it. Until such time as the governments of the world are prepared to offer similar protection to Muslims as it does to others, they should expect such angry reaction from the masses. “Never Again” should not be hollow rhetoric but state policy, and for all communities.

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