There has been a desperate need for subtlety in the public discourse surrounding the worldwide controversy over the Innocence of Muslims video. Subtlety, though, has been in meager supply. The video itself, which is intentionally and idiotically unsubtle, neither deserves nor needs description. Any attentive person has seen the decidedly unsubtle reaction to it played out in chaos in the streets of cities around the world, amid the babble of commercial media, the posturing of world leaders, and — far too infrequently — respectful and inclusive discourse in places of learning.
Luckily, there was a great deal of subtlety at the Muslim Students Association’s excellent event, called “#MuslimRage: Myths and Realities,” at Hart House last Tuesday. I won’t attempt as thorough and insightful a discussion as the one that took place there. However, the admirable example of groups like the MSA makes it worthwhile to think about just what subtlety might mean to us amidst the shouting, controversy, and hurt.
There is no need to be subtle in condemning The Innocence of Muslims as offensive, Islamaphobic, and lacking any intellectual or artistic value. Nor need there be any subtlety in understanding that producing it was an act of religious fanaticism. But when we consider the worldwide reaction to the film, subtlety should inform our approach.
First, subtlety might mean skepticism. At the MSA event, panelist professor Mohammed Fadel argued persuasively that those of us in the West, inundated as we are by commercial media, must be skeptical that the violent reaction to the video was as large-scale and endemic among Muslim populations as we’ve been led to believe. Fadel’s comparison of the anti-video demonstrations with even the smallest gatherings of the nascent Arab Spring, showed that the mobs at Western embassies and businesses were both relatively small and overwhelmingly male, unlike last year’s pro-democracy protests.
We should also question whether the violence that did occur was motivated by genuine feelings of religious insult. Fadel suggests that the violence may be less about the spontaneous and collective expression of anger about the video, and more about the manipulation of the population by extremist groups using the video as a pretext. If inciting violence and engineering protests can give fundamentalists the upper hand over secularists in the post-Arab Spring power struggles, then attacks on embassies and KFCs alike should be seen acts of political calculation, not genuine expression of resentment. In contrast Newsweek’s “Muslim Rage” cover story has a bad case of subtlety deficiency. It fails both to accurately portray the scale of the violence and to suggest that something more than spontaneous anger might be at play. However, that various #MuslimRage variations are trending on Twitter is encouraging — subtlety, expressed as irony, helps to counteract the bombast we so often see in the media.
In addition to skepticism, subtlety might mean respect and sensitivity. Perhaps the most meaningful moment of the MSA event was an audience member’s question about how Muslims can attempt to explain the sanctity and importance of the Prophet’s place at the centre of Islamic religious life to non-Muslims or non-believers. As a non-believer, I cannot comprehend this reverence. Thus, I can only affirm the right of Muslims worldwide to be upset and hurt. There is a subtle but key difference between respecting a religious practice or belief and respecting the right to such a practice or belief with security and dignity. This video, and other expressions of Islamophobia, can never be allowed to violate this right.
In light of the past weeks’ events, subtlety as sensitivity appears more indispensible than ever in the relationships between the West and the global Muslim community, neither of which — it is worth noting — are united in their attitudes, values, or aspirations. Ihsan Gardee, the executive director of the Canadian Council on American-Islamic Relations, noted in his remarks at the event that a key strategic goal of the Canadian Muslim community must be to combat the perception of Islam as synonymous with violence and fanaticism. To this I add that we must equally combat the confusion of mainstream Western cultural attitudes towards Islam or the Middle East with Islamophobia.
Examples of religious hatred will continue to appear and shake the delicate relationships between religions, states, and peoples. If we continue to build those relationships with subtlety, however, they will withstand disturbances far greater than a silly and amateurish video. We are lucky to have a university that encourages events and dialogue with just this subtlety as their aim.