As a scholar working on Muslims and Islam in Europe for the last 20 years, I made a decision in 2004 to decline any and all requests for interviews. This was prompted by the initial inflammatory discussions about the headscarf in French public schools, which led to a law on secularity, forbidding the wearing of conspicuous religious symbols in French public schools in March 2004. My decision was neither rational nor easy. Rather, it came from a deeply-held belief that people like me—white non-Muslim female academics—should not be assuming the public role of defending Muslims, especially in a context where we were systematically and exclusively being called upon by journalists to do so. Muslims in France, and more largely in Europe, do not need “saving.”
I believed then what I still believe now: What Muslims need, rather than vocal, non-Muslim defenders, is a visible place in the public forum. A place where their voices, stories and experiences may be broadcast and listened to without being considered anecdotal, therefore insignificant, irrelevant therefore exaggerated, not representative therefore misplaced. This is ever more vital in a context where we have all been primed to need and seek out news 24/7. More than ever, we need to be informed about things we don’t see or experience directly. This need has been reinforced in the current context of easier access to information and an increase in exchanges and information sharing via social networks. We need news to make sense of both our world and our daily lives. But not all news seems to circulate equally or have similar resonance. And this leads me back to “going public”, especially after the events of the past few weeks.
In early September, a short extract of The Innocence of Muslims, an anti-Islam, amateur fiction film that had been circulating on the web for several months, later translated into Arabic, went viral amongst Salafi and Muslim radical networks. It served as an efficient tool to drum up demonstrations locally in Egypt and Libya. In the immediate aftermath of the attack on U.S. diplomatic facilities in Benghazi that killed the U.S. Ambassador and three other U.S. citizens, U.S. agencies and top-ranking U.S. officials came to the view that the Benghazi attack was a spontaneous reaction from the streets against The Innocence of Muslims. This initial statement was revised on September 28 by the Director of U.S National Intelligence in which the attack was deemed a “deliberate and organized terrorist attack” by persons “linked to groups affiliated with, or sympathetic to al-Qaeda.” The intervening period and the debate that ensued clearly served as a powerful instrument to bring the “clash of civilizations” argument back into the discourse of the U.S. presidential campaign and by proxy into international politics. In the meantime, people have made money on the back of this (think of the satirical weekly French magazine Charlie Hebdo publishing cartoons making fun of the Prophet as a claim for freedom of expression) while bringing the idea of blasphemy back into the headlines.
“Neither Newsweek calling up Ayaan Hirsi Ali to write yet another silly Islamophobic piece for them, nor Anders Breivik’s mass murder in Norway, nor a lonesome pastor in Florida warming up a copy of the Quran, nor indeed Sam Bacile’s imbecility is an isolated event in the U.S. and Europe. They are integral to a pattern” writes Hamid Dabashi on the Al Jazeera English website. I share this view, and the pattern I see becoming clearer every day in Europe frightens me in both my capacity as an academic and as a citizen. For the three weeks between the murder of the U.S. ambassador and the statement by the U.S. national intelligence agencies, we have been subjected to a story that has now become natural and established in the European context: in politics, Muslims behave as an irrational, passionate group that menaces the very core of our western liberal values and liberties. They are a constant threat, both locally and abroad.
But what strikes me most is the silence following the most recent, revised statement: this silence is as destructive as the useless effort put into associating the Benghazi attack with a bad movie. I do not see any global apologies for the damage accomplished during the three weeks of dramatic reporting and misreading. I don’t hear anyone mentioning the daily, aggressive intimidation and harassment suffered by Muslims as a result of this narrative. Take the example of one of my female Muslim students, who, when questioned as to why she has not attended university for the last few years on September 11, reported a litany of the harassment she has had to endure on a regular basis, which is more explicit on this day and includes drivers threatening to run her over on the street, people spitting on her in the subway, touching her body on the bus, and insulting her with gestures and words in the streets. Who are we to claim that this is only anecdotal when she was driven to refuse to go to further job interviews as a result of this abuse.
The Western public has been educated to integrate events such as Benghazi into the fabric of their daily lives and to ignore others and, moreover, to dismiss the practical consequences of the dominant narrative. The liberal focus on rights and representation has probably contributed to this neglect of the real, lived dimensions of the debates on multiculturalism and pluralism, throwing into stark relief the chasm between rhetoric and reality. This liberal emphasis has certainly made it difficult for many of us to see that expectations regarding recognition in the public sphere also imply struggles over values.
I cannot help but be reminded of the absence of massive media coverage of Marwa el Sherbini’s murder in Stuttgart in 2009. Marwa was in court as a result of the appeal of the man who had insulted her earlier in a Dresden playground, the man who had screamed "terrorist" and "Islamist whore" at her and who had been initially fined for his abuse. During his appeal, he killed her in court. She was three months pregnant with her second child. Marwa el Sherbini is a very well known case among NGO antiracist activist milieus but her story did not make it into the larger public eye. The Innocence of Muslims, as bad as it is from a cinematographic point of view, made it. But where is the authentic drama?
The way we tell stories matters. We know that, and those of us who are parents are especially careful about it. So, where does the blame lie? On the “Western” media, who are always the first agencies to relay such events and connect them to a broader framework of explanation? Or is it us western white audiences, who buy into it with almost no discussion? In a way, such an event, and here I mean the simplistic connection between a propaganda movie and a terrorist attack, feeds the racialization process of a religious minority living in Europe—a process that seeks to set apart a group on the grounds of their religion. But as in all storytelling, the question we have arrived at is the most vital: What happens next?