Sat September 22, 2012
How Are American Muslims Responding To The Anti-Islam Film?
Originally published on Mon September 24, 2012 12:00 pm
Muslims have been demonstrating from North Africa to Southeast Asia, often violently, over the film that ridicules the Prophet Muhammad. But, in America, Muslims have been virtually silent over the video Innocence Of Muslims.
Why the subdued response in the U.S.?
Jonathan Brown, an assistant professor of Islamic studies at Georgetown University, offers one theory. He thinks some American Muslims are too scared to protest.
"In a post 9/11 world, they're absolutely frightened to stick their heads out in any way, shape or form," he says. "They are still apologizing for attacks they didn't do."
Many American Muslims are fearful of appearing suspicious, voicing discontent with government or showing any solidarity with Muslims overseas, he argues. And if they do express their opinions, Brown says, they are absolutely tripping over themselves to show how truly moderate and civil they are.
"I think Muslims in America feel incredibly isolated," he adds. "They feel that there are protections generally afforded to Americans that are not going to be afforded to them, or at least not reliably. They know they have very few allies who will speak on their behalf. So they keep their mouth shut."
But that is not always true, says Ibrahim Hooper, national communications director at the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
Muslims in America protest and stand up for issues they believe in, he argues. However, many pick which battles they think are worth fighting — and the film and cartoons simply did not make the cut.
"The movie is an intentional provocation," Hooper says, "and we shouldn't give producers the cheap publicity they so desperately seek,"
Hooper is trying to relay that message abroad. His organization, CAIR, has issued a number of statements calling for calm in Muslim-majority countries and urging Muslims to stop taking the bait when there are provocations.
Many American Muslims prefer methods other than demonstrating when responding to inflammatory material. Yasmin Hussein, a representative of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, says fighting anti-Islam sentiments requires proactive, not reactive approaches.
"So, when stuff like the film happens, we don't ignore it," she says. "But it's just one occurrence. Anti-Islam attitudes are a daily reality. We're constantly trying to debunk misconceptions and teach our communities about Islam."
And, sure, protests can bring change, she says. Just look at the Arab uprisings that have toppled several governments. But behind-the-scenes work, she argues, is sometimes a more effective strategy for Muslims in America.
"It's about changing America's perception of Muslims," she says. "And that takes reaching out to individuals who can make those changes — like policymakers, journalists and people in Hollywood."
Activism online is another common form of protest, she says. Some American Muslims are more likely to counter anti-Islam sentiments with an Internet post or tweet, rather than a sign.
There also seem to be other factors at play in the different responses to the film in the U.S. and in Muslim-majority countries.
Many Islamic scholars argue that the protests are symptomatic of larger issues like the political instability and social anxiety in countries where violent demonstrations have occurred. Some also have a long and complicated history with the U.S.
Additionally, many Muslims abroad seem to have little understanding of the obscurity of the film. A video described as a trailer has been seen mostly on YouTube, though it was also broadcast on an Egyptian television network.
The video trailer has been on the Internet for weeks, but it attracted no real attention in the U.S. until the protests began in Egypt last week. Muslim groups in the U.S., if they were aware of the video previously, did not make an issue of it.
U.S. Muslim groups have come out and condemned the violence abroad, including the Sept. 11 attack in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens. But aside from that, Muslims in America have stayed on the peripheries, not wanting to be drawn into a fire burning overseas.
[Reema Khrais is an NPR Kroc Fellow.]