20 Sep 2012

Prophet film protests: where are the moderate voices?

As protests continue over a film which mocks the prophet Mohammed, Channel 4 News asks why there have been few if any moderate voices speaking out against the demonstrations.

So far the demonstrations have stretched around the world from London to Sudan, from Cairo to Pakistan. Protesters in Libya killed the US ambassador and three of his staff. Elsewhere, US flags have been burned and there have been clashes with security forces.

For many Muslims, any depiction of the Prophet is blasphemous, and caricatures or other characterisations have in the past provoked violent protests across the Muslim world.

Maajid Nawaz, co-founder of the counter-terrorism think-tank Quilliam Foundation told Channel 4 News there are some serious barriers to overcome for anyone who is minded to call for a more moderate response: “I think there have been moderate voices in the past on blasphemy but since the murder of the ex-governor of Punjab, Salmaan Taseer, for merely suggesting a change to Pakistan’s blasphemy laws people, have been much more cautious about speaking out.

“Anyone who utters even a sentence against the protests in the current climate really has to be commended.”

Read more from Channel 4 News about the Prophet film protests

Jane Kinninmont, senior research fellow Middle East and North Africa programme at Chatham House, told Channel 4 News “I think there have been some moderate voices. If you take, for example, Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood initially called for protests but then cancelled that call.

Activists across the region have many other important issues taking up their time and energy. Jane Kinninmont

Naturally they dressed up that cancellation with criticism of the film, but it means they are still on good terms with America which is important for them in terms of aid and US support.”

She also points out that despite the news coverage – protests make great pictures – it is only a minority of Muslims that is protesting: “Many more have mixed feelings – they don’t necessarily agree with the approach of protestors but they don’t want to defend the film or indeed be seen as standing up for the US.”

Maajid Nawaz also points out that the film has emerged in the still relatively early days in the lives of the new post-uprising governments: “We have to see these protests in a wider context. Once the iron fist of oppression has been removed, people now have the freedom to vent their pent-up anger without fear of torture or persecution.

“I think if this had happened 10 years after the uprisings in the middle east, the protests would not have been so intense. Basically people are giving vent to emotions that have built up over many years and the issue of the film is one that goes to the heart of many peoples’ identity. To understand this is not to justify it.”

And Chatham House’s Jane Kinninmont also points out that in such an environment, there are other problems which demand the attention of the people who would ordinarily be expected to speak out over the film: “It’s also worth remembering that activists across the region have many other important issues taking up their time and energy. If you are a liberal who believes in defending free speech, you already have plenty to preoccupy you.

“And you may want to focus more on people’s freedom to criticise their own governments than on the freedom to mock religious symbols.”