A Yemeni response to cultural Islamophobia

The protests in Yemen have proved to be heterogenous, demonstrating the nuances that exist in the country’s society.

The protest left three people killed and more than 30 wounded according to some media reports [EPA]
The protest left three people killed and more than 30 wounded according to some media reports [EPA]

Last Thursday morning, hundreds of Yemenis gathered in front of the American Embassy. Like many in other Arab and Islamic countries, they were provoked by reports in their media that a Jewish man named Sam Bacile had produced a film maligning prophet Mohammed peace upon him.

The angry protesters succeeded in climbing the walls of the embassy and to set some cars in its parking lot into fire. The protest left three people killed and more than 30 wonded according to some media reports but no causalities among the Americans

An apology is made by Abd Raboh, the president of Yemen, to Barack Obama over the breaking incident of the American Embassy, and a vow to form a committee to investigate the incident and to pursue protesters involved in.

In spite of that news reports talked about the arrival of 100 marines to the Yemeni capital, Sana’a with the aim of protecting its Embassy.

The third group believe it was a kind of stupidity to show any reaction to the film as it gives its producers the publicity they are looking for

Since the revolutionary uprising of last year that led to the toppling of Saleh, Yemenis have been facing many difficulties and problems in their daily life. Nearly half of them live under the poverty line, almost seven million of them have no access to secure food and struggle hard to send their children to schools. These desperate situations are worsened by the ghost of separation in the south and the Houthis militants in the north’ who try to make use of the power vacuum ensuing the uprisings of last Year. In addition, there is a threat from Al-Qaida which launches suicide attacks from time to time.

In spite of these conditions, Yemenis feel hurt by the film mocking the prophet. But there is disagreement among Yemenis as to how they should react to the film. By talking to ordinary people, listening to preachers in the mosques and following posts and comments on Facebook, it seems that the mood of Yemenis can be divided into three.

One group believed that the film was insulting and it was their religious duty to protest against it. They encouraged people protest against and it was members of this group who gathered in front of the American embassy on Thursday.

The second group as much as they expressed anger of the film, they rejected violence as a means to protest against. They viewed the breaking incident into the embassy as an immoral act. For them, there are many ways to express anger other than destroying properties and plundering equipments. Such acts, they say, contradict the teachings and principles of Islam- the religion of peace and tolerance. Members of this group are, in fact, plenty in number.

The third group believe it was a kind of stupidity to show any reaction to the film as it gives its producers the publicity they are looking for. They likened its production to terrorist attacks by which publicity is intended more than destruction and causalities. Thus, the best way to ensure the film a failure is to completely ignore it.

Their position, according to them, is proved right with the publication of cartoons of the Prophet by the French weekly magazine ‘Charlie Hebdo’ on Wednesday. A move seen by them a response to the Muslims’ widespread outrage over that film. It mainly intended to irritate Muslims and to satirize their reaction to the film more than to insult their prophet. Will Muslims got provoked every time an unknown scoundrel publish something depicting their prophet, they chokingly asked. 

Yet, the film has triggered plenty of political disputes and arguments in Yemen as well as the countries of the Arab Spring. The remnants of deposited regimes used it as a political tool to accuse the revolutionary forces of being more concerned to preserve their alliance with the US more than to defend the prophet. They alleged that such a position of the revolutionaries not to react to the film as a real evidence that the Arab spring revolutions were planed and plotted by the US through its allies in the area. They also alleged that new governments in the area including that of Yemen are no more than puppets of the US administration.

Most of the revolutionaries, in fact, believe that it is not a US which is to blame for the film production. This is confirmed in the apology of the Barak Obama, the president of US and his general Secretary Hilary Clinton who described the film as disgusting and its production as irresponsible act.

There is disagreement among Yemenis as to how they should
react to the film

They believe a conspiracy is behind the film on the evidence of coinciding the anniversary of the 9/11 events. A preacher in the mosque during Friday prayer stated the film was intended to irritate Muslims and drive their anger against US interests in the area. He encouraged Muslims to be rational than emotional. It is an exploitation of resources, he said, for a nation to confront an individual who wants to make a hero of himself on account of Muslims’ resentment and anger.

Yemenis generally, do not consider such an attack on prophet Mohammed as a freedom of speech act which is the essence of democracy. Democracy , for them, does not mean the vilification of other beliefs but to show respect for them. The rise of Arab spring events in 2011 showed that the core of the Yemeni protest was to demand justice, dignity and equality which are the core of democracy principles. However, they all reject this form of democracy which allows the maligning of other faiths and beliefs.

The Arab Spring came to improve the Image of US in the area because the US demonstrated its support for the revolutionary movement in Yemen and other Arab countries. However, this film came to show a wide gap between the US and Muslims. On the one hand, Muslims cannot understand that Obama himself cannot stop the production of this film. He cannot tell 300 million Americans what they should believe or should not.

On the other hand, the film and the new caricatures depicting the prophet show how difficult it is for Americans as westerners to understand why the film is inflammatory to Muslims. This, however, cannot be explained unless considered within its context.

The prophet Mohammed is regarded as the highest authority in Islam. Through him the teachings of Islam and principles are revealed and conveyed. Therefore, to depict him as “womaniser” or “paedophile” is to claim wickedness at the foundation of the faith. Besides, the content of the film is hostile, grossly inaccurate and prejudiced. It revealed the producer’s attitude towards the prophet rather than the prophet’s character. As such Muslims felt insulted by such depiction of their prophet.

With the publication of the new caricatures intended solely to insult Muslims by a magazine alleged itself a defender of free speech and a denouncer of religious backwardness, Americans and Westerners, should not continue the tendency of seeing the principles of democracy in glowing terms- parading themselves as its warriors. The fact is that thee are some on the west who try to democratize their hatred to Muslims and denigration of their faith and prophet.

If the West wants to understand Muslims better, it needs to divest itself of some of old prejudice, ignorance and misconception. Perhaps, as Karen Armstrong puts it, one place to start with is the beloved figure of prophet Mohammed, a passionate man whose especial genius and wisdom can illuminate these dark and frightening times. That is Mohammed who with a divine support founded a faith whose name signifies peace and reconciliation, and once the greatest civilisation in the world, not on the sword or hatred of women – despite the western myths.

Murad Alazzany is a professor in the department of English Studies at Sana’a University, Yemen. His main research areas are ‘the representation of Islam and Muslims in the Western media’ and ‘the political discourse of Islamic movements in the media’.

More from Author
Most Read