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Thursday, September 20, 2012

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(Published in, on 20 September 2012, retrieved from

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I live in a city that is arguably the most peaceful metro in this country. A city where there isn’t much communal tension, certainly not enough to cause rioting. A city where a few people routinely set themselves on fire in support of some cause or protest against some decision, and where there will be the occasional fracas in colleges or courts, and where political parties and the film fraternity go on relay fasts every now and again over the Tamil Eezham issue, or over some water crisis – but a city that hasn’t been the focus of national attention since Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated in nearby Sriperumbudur in 1991.
But for the past few days, traffic has been stalled for hours, and posses of police personnel have been manning the streets, because of large-scale protests by several Muslim organisations outside the US Embassy in the heart of Madras.
And this wasn’t an ordinary sit-in, or run-of-the-mill protest with sloganeering. It was one of the most intense I’ve witnessed anywhere. The streets were choked for hours. A 20,000-strong crowd had assembled, appropriating the arterial Mount Road. The sloganeering was only interrupted when the entire assembly stopped for evening namaaz. To my horror, I saw images on television of motorcycles that happened to be parked nearby set on fire. A vehicle that belonged to a Tamil television channel was apparently burnt too.
As the anti-American sentiment among Muslims spreads from the Middle East to the subcontinent, access to the offending video, an English clipping from a film called Innocence of Muslims, has been blocked. I saw it a little over a week ago, when Egyptians stormed the American embassy in Cairo. One journalist had described it on Twitter as “a very unfunny remake of The Life of Brian”.
Yes, a very unfunny, terribly shot, awfully scripted remake. Reportedly made by a Nakoula Basseley Nakoula and promoted by Pastor Terry Jones, the crazy extremist who organised a Quran-burning fête despite the US administration trying desperately to reason with him. It was apparently shot with actors who mouthed completely different lines that were altered by dubbing. They’re believed to have been paid minimum wage.
What I don’t see is why a bizarre film made by a nutter deserves so much importance. Or should cause so much hatred against the country he happens to belong to. How are American embassies across the world to blame for one man making a home video? Why is American President Barack Obama being burnt in effigy and held responsible for the actions of a man who happens to live in the country whose Presidency Obama assumed four years ago?
As violence sweeps across this part of the world, people are being killed every day. “Foreigners” are being targeted – foreigners who have nothing to do with the man or people who made the film. In Afghanistan, a suicide bomber killed at least twelve people, who were all aviation workers. Most weren’t even American; even if they had been, there was no reason they or anyone else should have been killed. Not even the makers of the film.
By reacting in such a manner to the film, whose existence we came to know of only when it was uploaded on YouTube, dubbed in Arabic, and pushed into the media’s ambit, followers of Islam have played right into the hands of the makers of this ridiculous film. What better way to besmirch a religion than to provoke its followers into frenzy, and then count the bodies?
The wave of angry protest reminds me of the Prophet cartoons controversy of 2005, when Danish embassies were stormed and Danish flags burnt, in response to a single newspaper publishing cartoons that ridiculed Islam and Prophet Muhammad.
Since the clippings sparked similar reactions, spoof site The Onion put up a caricature of Jesus, Moses, Ganesha and the Buddha in an orgy, titled, ‘No one was murdered because of this image’. French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo went further, publishing cartoons that depicted a Jew wheeling Prophet Muhammad someplace on the cover page, and the Prophet in an imitation of Brigitte Bardot from And God created Woman in the inner pages. Since then, France has announced that it will shut its embassies and schools in 20 countries on Friday, as a preventive measure.
It’s true that the Islamic faith may have been targeted by extremists of other persuasions. And it’s only natural that anti-Islamic propaganda should be disturbing to its followers. But at a time when any fool can shoot an offensive video and upload it online, maybe the only solution is to ignore such provocation and go about one’s daily business. After all, by taking to storming embassies and setting off suicide bombs, no one is doing their faith any favours, whatever the faith may be.


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