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‘Clash of Civilisations’: Nothing more than a backward blackface minstrel show

Simon Allison covers Africa for the Daily Maverick, having cut his teeth reporting from Palestine, Somalia and revolutionary Egypt. He loves news and politics, the more convoluted the better. Despite his natural cynicism and occasionally despairing tone, he is an Afro-optimist, and can’t wait to witness and chronicle the continent’s swift development over the next few decades.

The ‘grand war’ between Muslims and Christians isn’t being fought on a grand scale. It’s a battle among  small-minded people seeking international attention. If we allow their crazy philosophies to prevail we’ll have only ourselves to blame. 

When I was a child, I remember being told: “Sticks and stones can break your bones, but words can never hurt you.” That was terrible advice. Just ask Christopher Stevens, the American ambassador to Libya. Oh, wait, you can’t – he’s dead. Killed in his car in Benghazi by a movie made halfway across the world. Words, images, narratives; these are weapons more powerful and dangerous than anything arms manufacturers can sell us.

Especially this narrative. “The Clash of Civilisations”, it is called, a grand name for the games that mean and petty people play while claiming the virtues of peace, tolerance and forgiveness for themselves. You know the story, invoked so often by both sides in the War on Terror, another grand name for something so obviously nasty and vindictive: Muslims vs. Christian; good vs. evil; West vs. East; democracy vs. terrorism. The world is split in half, and, whoever you are, you need to choose your side and follow it without question. You’re either with us or against us, don’t forget, no matter who the “us” is.

It is straight into this worldview that the trailer for Innocence of Muslims was released – a low-budget, low-quality film depicting the life of the prophet Mohamed. Now, this alone is incendiary. Remember the Danish cartoonist who drew him in a sketch? He was forced into hiding, and you couldn’t buy Lurpak in the Gulf for years. This is because depictions of the prophet are forbidden in Islam; the very act of drawing him or acting as him is going to cause a few problems, regardless of whether you’re being nice about him or not.

The makers of Innocence of Muslims weren’t being nice. The 13-minute preview is loaded with historical and religious inaccuracies designed to make Islam ridiculous and absurd. Watch it for yourself, and see how Mohamed gnaws on a bone like a dog, exchanges sexual innuendos with goats and sexually abuses children. His companions wonder if he’s gay. This is the founder of Islam: a lunatic, wild savage, a perverted paedophile. No wonder those crazy Muslims want to bomb us all.

On one level, the clips are quite amusing. The production quality is laughably poor, the whole thing bizarrely reminiscent of Monty Python’s Life of Brian – another controversial film about a religion, which was banned in many countries and earned its cast more than their fair share of death threats from loony Christian fundamentalists. But where Life of Brian was obviously satirical, its humour masking a sophisticated critique of Christianity, Innocence of Muslims is crude, shallow and offensive, its message made even more ridiculous by the actors’ New York accents and their amateurish attempts to darken their white skin – a practice painfully, and probably deliberately, reminiscent of blacking up.

The mastermind of this blackface minstrel show is the hitherto unknown American-Israel filmmaker Sam Bacile, ably assisted on the promotional side by a certain Terry Jones, the fundamentalist pastor previously in the headlines for threatening to burn the Quran. Having sensibly gone into hiding (an option not available to Ambassador Stevens), Bacile explained to Associated Press that he wanted to tell the world that Islam is a cancer, and that his film – which cost $5 million and involved 60 actors and 45 crew – was designed as a condemnation of the entire religion.

It’s hard to imagine that anyone can take his film seriously, but the response of Salafist groups in Egypt and Libya will have hardened the perceptions of many that Islam is a violent religion. In Egypt, a group of protestors stormed the American Embassy, succeeding in ripping down the American flag and replacing it with the black banner beloved of fundamentalist Islamic groups everywhere, the one emblazoned with the Muslim profession of faith and flown by the likes of al-Qaeda and Al-Shabaab. In Libya, the American consulate in Benghazi was set on fire by an angry mob, killing one; when Ambassador Stevens’ visited the next day to survey the damage, his car was attacked with rockets, killing him and three other Americans.

This is how the clash of civilisations works. The rantings of an angry filmmaker are presumed by small numbers of angry, militant, ultra-conservative Islamists to speak for the beliefs of an entire culture, and so American diplomats are targeted. Meanwhile, the frenzied, violent response from this tiny group of Muslims, who are about as representative of Islam as a whole as Joseph Kony is of Christianity, come to symbolise the entire religion as far as Bacile and Reverend Jones are concerned.

It is easy for the rest of us to get caught up in this binary, narrow worldview which fails to recognise a few obvious truths. Most people in this world are not Muslims or Christians. Most people in this world – even Muslims and Christians, even Americans – are just trying to get on with their lives, and are not looking for trouble; they don’t really care about the silly films and grandiose statements so beloved of politicians and terrorists alike. Most people are capable of understanding that the actions of a few crazies do not speak for an entire people, culture or religion.

More importantly, a closer analysis of the players involved in this sordid chapter of history reveals that the “clash of civilisations” shtick is merely a pretext for their real motivations, which are almost always closer to home and decidedly less noble. Bacile, in a lesser-reported comment, told the AP that he wanted to protect his native Israel. How exactly that’s supposed to work is a mystery, but that is one of his goals; probably it is no coincidence that there’s an election in two months’ time, where President Barack Obama (perceived as being cool towards Israel) is up against the hawkish Mitt Romney.

The Islamists in Libya, meanwhile, are engaged in their own struggles for local and national power, trying to establish a place for themselves in the new Libya. Of course, there are plenty of Islamist groups in Libya, and almost all of them were not involved at all in the attack on the consulate. The group thought to have instigated it is relatively new and untested, for which the controversial film provided the perfect platform to make a strong statement of intent – one directed less at America and more at other Libyans.

Domestic election battles, local power struggles, greed, self-interest; this is what lies behind the so-called clash of civilisations. And this is what we need to remember as politicians, analysts and commentators, most either oblivious or with some vested interest, try to spin the incident as the latest in a historic, identity-driven ideological battle. There is no grand war between Muslims and Christians, because most of them aren’t fighting and don’t care. There is no epic battle between good and bad, because the former rarely exists in the world of international politics. There is no almighty tussle between democrats and fundamentalists, as the Arab Spring showed us, when the fundamentalists helped to topple the autocrats which were all along supported by the democratic countries.

Instead, we’ve got small-minded people with small agendas who have figured out a way to get themselves an awful lot of international attention. If their dire, crazy philosophies become a self-fulfilling prophecy, we’ll have only ourselves to blame. DM

Read more:

  • “Romney calls Obama response to Libya attacks ‘disgraceful’,” on the Washington Post 
  • “US Ambassador killed in Benghazi attack.” in the Guardian  
  • Movie trailer for Innocence of Muslims, on YouTube  

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