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Comment | Comment

Anti-Islam Film Sparks Violence and Killings: Complex Challenge


By C Uday Bhaskar for New Age Islam

The death toll resulting from violent protests that followed the dissemination of an anti-Islam video continues to increase.  A deep anti-western sentiment  is spreading  through  many parts of Africa and Asia , as also in Europe and the target of such attacks are  the diplomatic and military premises of the  US   and  some of its  western  allies.  At the time of writing this comment, as many as 15 countries reported such protests – including India – where Chennai and parts of Kashmir reported such occurrence.

Tragically, the US Ambassador to Libya J Christopher Stevens was killed in Benghazi, Libya on Tuesday (Sep 12) along with three other US diplomatic personnel and on Friday (Sep 14), the Taliban attacked a US military base in Helmand province of Afghanistan and killed two US marines.  Details are still awaited about the casualties of this attack. In other related protests, seven people were killed in  Khartoum  (Sudan ) , Tunis  (Tunisia ) and Cairo  (Egypt )  and there are deep concerns  of further unrest. – Some of which is being stoked by right-wing extremist groups in these countries.

Most people who have seen this short anti- Islam video are unanimous that it is very offensive and deliberately provocative. Furthermore, it is a poorly made film clip but the death, destruction and sectarian damage it has triggered is significant – both in the immediate context and for the long term. The fact that South Asia   has also felt these tremors is evident in the protests in Pakistan, Bangladesh and India.

There is little dissent in the dominant view that while the film may have been provocative, this kind of violence and mayhem is not justified – and that it has to be condemned and the perpetrators brought to book. This is easier said than done, though President Morsi of Egypt has taken very firm action in Cairo and the next few days will be critical for Egypt and the Arab world. However the fact that this kind of Islam related, anti-US violence occurred on this scale and that these events unfolded a day after the 11th anniversary of 9/11 suggest that there may have been other forces that were planning and abetting the tragic sequence of events that have unfolded over the last five days. The implications of this challenge are complex and this turbulence needs to be dealt with objectively, firmly - and yet with empathy.

The Arab world which will mark the second anniversary of the ‘Arab Spring’ that began in Tunisia on December 18, 2010 is currently in a state of ferment and Egypt symbolizes the underground tensions and anxieties that have come to the surface.  Dictatorial regimes have been rejected and Hosni Muabarak of Egypt is representative of the pattern in the region, where the US had often supported oppressive regimes against the interests of the people.

Thus deep anti-US feeling stemming from the democracy-dictator divide is a fact of life on the Arab street.  In the aftermath of 9/11, this sentiment has been stoked and exploited by right wing religious groups that subscribe broadly to the extreme and inflexible schools of Islam associated with the Wahabi-Salafi strand of Islam and further distorted by the al-Qaeda, the Taliban and other terror supporting groups.

Thus the current wave of protests and the killings that followed in North Africa and West Asia are thriving on this fervor and in some cases, local groups have used the opportunity to advance their agenda. In Libya, the hasty and ill-advised overthrow of the Gaddafi regime paved the way for anti-US, right wing Islamist groups to consolidate their position and the killing of the US ambassador is being ascribed to a well-planned assassination by this constituency.  The Taliban attack on Camp Bastion in   Helmand appears to follow a similar pattern and it is likely that more such opportunistic attacks will take place.

Specific to India,   the manner in which the US consulate in Chennai was targeted by as many as 1500 protestors drawn from the local Tamil Nadu Muslim Munnetra  Kazhagam  merits scrutiny.  While peaceful protests and demonstrations are part of the democratic experience, the manner in which the US Consulate was targeted raises many questions – more so against the backdrop of the recent Jihadi-terror related arrests in Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh.  Are some sections of the   domestic Muslim sentiment being misled in India?  In other words are there potential Jihadi sleeper-cells that can be activated to propagate such religion-incited violence to advance certain anti-national, political agendas?

These are disturbing questions for India but need to be raised in the public domain.  Modern communication technology allows for the rapid dissemination of   inflammatory information, provocative images and wild rumors – as India witnessed during the exodus of North easterners from Bangalore. The need to preempt such developments will be the highest priority for the Indian state and this means acquiring both professional capacity and institutional integrity.  Alas, both are currently lacking.

India is already grappling with two cancers – that of corruption and the cynical manipulation of caste for short-term electoral gains.  If the malignancy of communal discord enters the body-politic, then many of the excesses of the past – ranging from 1947 to 1984 and 2002 will come back to haunt the sub-continent in the most extreme manner.

The rash of violence that followed the news about the release of this anti-Islam video is a warning.  Deliberately distorting religion with ulterior motives can poison the socio-political fabric of a society very rapidly and the damage can often be irreparable.  Both state and civil society need to reflect over this incident in a constructive and non-acrimonious manner.

C. Uday Bhaskar is a New Delhi-based strategic analyst. He is counted among the leading defence analysts of India and has contributed over 50 research articles/papers to professional journals and books published in India and abroad.