“The Innocence of Muslims” A Briefing Note on Early Research Findings by
Dr Arshad Isakjee Dr Chris Allen October 2012
Institute of Applied Social Studies, School of Social Policy 1|P a g e
Introduction On July 1st 2012 a video titled ‘The Innocence of Muslims’ was posted on the YouTube website. The video clip purported to be a trailer for a full length film which had been allegedly shown to a near empty cinema two weeks earlier in the Vine Theatre in Los Angeles1. For some months after this, the YouTube video remained largely unnoticed. However, by early September 2012 the video had been dubbed into Arabic and parts of it were broadcast on Arab television. Around the same period, the Pastor Terry Jones – better known for his plans to burn 200 Qur’ans on the tenth anniversary of 9/11 – announced that he planned to screen the film at his Church again, on the anniversary of 9/11.
Various protests against the video took place around the world. From a preliminary survey of British newspapers, it would appear that around 75 people died as a result of the protests with a further 650 or so being injured. Internationally the most significant protests took place in Egypt, leading to a scaling of the wall of the US diplomatic mission in Cairo. Whilst in Libya, protests coincided with an attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi which led to the death of the American ambassador. This matter has though been largely seen as a separate incident.
In the UK, whilst protests were relatively muted, Anjem Choudary - the former leader of a number of proscribed Islamist groups - led a demonstration outside the US embassy in London which involved the burning of American and Israeli flags. A smaller protest took place on 21 September 2012 in Birmingham along with another in Cardiff. Larger Muslim campaigns in the following week which garnered less media coverage involved an initiative to spread conciliatory messages of ‘love’ to shoppers and commuters in London as well as in Birmingham city centre.
There are various conflicting stories as to whether this did or did not take place as indeed thereare about whether an actual ‘feature film’ exists.
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This briefing note cites early findings from an ongoing research project which is seeking to gather the views of British Muslims who have engaged with government in a representative or expert capacity. The aims of the research are: 1. To evaluate Muslim responses to the video in the UK 2. To gather the views of Muslim groups regarding the representation of Muslims in the media following the affair 3. To asses Muslim views on the reaction of government to the crisis 4. To ask Muslim representatives about how they believe negative stereotypes of Muslims can be countered in the light of the affair
General Implications for Media Representation of Muslims From preliminary findings, the unfolding situation related to the ‘Innocence of Muslims’ video would seem to support understanding about Islamophobia and anti-Muslim hate in two ways:
First, the video clip represents the type of Islamophobic and anti-Muslim propaganda which is relatively easily spread online, utilising social media and online networking tools for dissemination
Second, the media coverage of the response to the video gives an indication of how Muslim voices are being aired and portrayed to wider audiences
Other findings beginning to emerge include:
Muslim representatives found themselves disenchanted with the furore surrounding the ‘Innocence of Muslims’ video, and felt resigned to the fact that the story, which
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understandably provoked news headlines, would see Muslim sentiments as being portrayed as necessarily antithetical to liberal notions of freedom of expression
Representatives were unanimous in their condemnation of the exaggerated and violent protests that were held by Muslims, principally outside the UK
Despite distancing themselves from those more extreme reactions, the representatives interviewed at times communicated a sense of powerlessness in being able to shape British Muslim responses as being distinct from the more publicised responses of Muslims elsewhere in the world
Evolving Responses from Evolving Muslim Groups Part of the research process is also looking at the ‘Innocence of Muslims’ video in the context of 1989’s Satanic Verses affair and more recently, the protests following the publication of ‘Prophet Muhammad cartoons’ in Denmark in 2005. From these enquiries, the research has begun to highlight that:
Muslim representatives generally agreed that Muslim communities have come a long way in changing their approach to publications critical or indeed abusive to the Islamic faith especially since the Rushdie affair in 1989
However, there remains a concern that despite the moderated responses of Muslim groups, it was easy for small numbers of ‘Islamists’ - such as the followers of Anjem Choudary - to construct a media narrative of more extreme reactions to the YouTube publication
More broadly, those engaged felt that a wider range of different Muslims were being asked to speak on behalf of British Muslims. However there was disagreement as to whether or not this diversity is helpful or hindering attempts by the media to seek genuine ‘representative’ voices
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Some respondents believe that communities as diverse as Britain’s multiple Muslim communities should reflect that diversity in having separate representative organisations allied to different causes or sub-communities
Alternatively however, the lack of a ‘unified voice’ was also seen to be problematic by some respondents who felt that without an accepted umbrella group, the space exists for nonrepresentative individuals - including extremist groups - to be heard instead of more moderate and mainstream voices
A Space for Government Intervention? Opinion appears to be divided as to whether the government response to the ‘Innocence of Muslims’ video was adequate or indeed whether any governmental intervention is possible in tackling similar issues in the future. Some indicative responses are set out below:
The government responded correctly in condemning the killings of the Libyan ambassador
A statement from the Department of Communities & Local Government condemning both the video and the extreme reactions towards it would have been appropriate and within the purview of the department
Some responses indicated they did not believe it was possible for government to control online content
Others believed that a protocol should be in place with major social networking sites to liaise with government if similar difficulties arise in future
Additional Reflection The research project is still underway yet one of the issues, flagged up by data so far is the seemingly unpredictable nature of the application of criminal prosecutions against internet-based abuse.
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Although in the case of â€˜Innocence of Muslimsâ€™, any would-be offense was carried out in the US, respondents described a seeming inconsistency between recent high-profile prosecutions for offences committed in posting offensive commentary online and the plethora of abusive language that exists elsewhere on the internet, directed at Muslims as well as many other groups. However, this is recognised as a politically sensitive issue that transcends debates around Islamophobia and the media.
A full report along with other relevant publications is expected to be available from early December 2012.
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Published on Mar 17, 2013
Published on Mar 17, 2013
A briefing note submitted to the Cross-Government Working Group on Anti-Muslim Hatred, October 2012