Recent protests in the Middle East and Southeast Asia have brought us to wonder: Is this really happening all over again? A panel of noted professors in the field from Georgetown University came together to offer up opinions and ideas on this topic on Monday.
The discussion began with a telling image: a slide of a 1990 article in The Atlantic entitled "The Roots of Muslim Rage" by historian Bernard Lewis. Fast forward to 2012, and we have a Newsweek cover with the same title and theme, "Muslim Rage and the Last Gasp of Islamic Hate" by Ayaan Hirsi Ali.
Panelist Dr. Jonathan Brown subsequently discussed our "manifest failure" to learn from past experience. The worldwide riots at that time were over the depiction of the prophet, and lessons on how to respect and honor other religious perspectives, in particular Islam, and Muslims. Indeed these are lessons that are essential in society today in order to "bridge the gulf." But clearly they have not been learned.
The negative depiction of Muslims in the media is a key factor. Muslims in America have been called "childlike" and endure negative depictions in the media on a regular basis to this day. Corporate decisions, such as YouTube allowing the recent inflammatory film to be distributed, need to be examined. Although the filmmaker's intentions were clear, the video was allowed to be published. This raises a basic question: Why didn't this film violate YouTube policy?" Ads and films are sometimes pulled or modified when they offend Christian sensibilities, but that seems to happen less often when films or ads are about Muslims. The outcome of this, Prof. Brown noted, is that "companies need to apply their policies more fairly."
Looking at the controversy from another viewpoint, Professor Yvonne Haddad spoke about the background of the Egyptian Copts, the group which it is being reported that the filmmaker belongs to. The fact that all major Coptic groups have spoken out against the film is seldom emphasized in the media or public discourse, as it is more convenient to portray the story in simple rhetoric unfavorable to Muslims that the public expects to hear.
Professor John Voll spoke to the issue of the demographics of the protests — that is, who is involved and what are they saying? There is an enormous spectrum of protesters, which you don't see depicted in the media. The recent Newsweek magazine cover showed wide-mouthed, wild-eyed, angry Muslims in the street. No other views were shown, just the stereotypical view that has persisted for many years now. The narrative has not changed, even though the protests against "The Innocence of Muslims" were diverse in action and events. The public is inundated with views of the consulate in Benghazi under attack, with almost no depictions in American media of peaceful protest of the film, like the one shown during the panel discussion that took place in Lebanon, where Muslims were standing and sitting quietly, listening to speeches.
In summary, déjà vu certainly feels like an eminently appropriate term for the nature and pattern of Muslim/non-Muslim portrayals of each other, both in the media and on the ground. As Dr. Brown emphasized during the question and answer period, now, just as before, it seems perfectly acceptable to demonize Muslims and few people or media outlets speak up for them. In most walks of life, there are consequences for publicly insulting other religions, races or groups of people, but not so when it comes to insulting Muslims. Seldom are people held accountable.