As protests erupted in response to a film deemed critical of Islam, the U.S. embassy in Cairo released a statement condemning the "continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims." Hours later, U.S. ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens and three others had died in a fire at the U.S. embassy in neighbouring Libya started by protesters angered by the film.
The media coverage of the protests and ensuing deaths appeared at first glance to be perpetuating the view of Muslims as a homogenous mob responding disproportionately to any semblance of a critique of Islam. This was the same mob, the coverage appeared to say, that issued a fatwa against the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten for publishing of satirical cartoons of the prophet Muhammad in 2005. This episode pitted Muslims and concerns related to blasphemy against the West and the protection of free speech.
In the coverage of this latest incident, it initially appeared that all criticism was being leveled at the "Muslim masses" while the film itself was being spared of any criticism because it was merely the free expression of an opinion by an artist. Implicit in this view was the perspective that Muslims can't tolerate criticism while the West holds the freedom of expression in the highest importance.
At this point I looked up the trailer to the said film, "The Innocence of Muslims." I was shocked. The trailer had an almost Monty-Python-esque quality in the absurdity of the portrayal of the prophet Muhammad. But there was nothing satirical about the film. There was no self-reflective criticism veiled in humour. There was no implicit political message hidden in the dialogue -- or explicit message for that matter. Rather, the film ridiculed Islam and presented the prophet Muhammad as a hapless fool.
But as I was getting on my high horse and planning a post about the disservice that the Western media does in presenting Islam as an angry anti-Western mob, Obama made a speech. "The United States condemns in the strongest terms this outrageous and shocking attack [at the diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, Libya]," the president said. "We will work with the Libyan government to bring to justice the killers who attacked our people," he continued. But, he went on to say, "since our founding, the United States has been a nation that respects all faiths. We reject all efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others."
Since Muslims and Islam took the place of Russia and communism as the villain of choice for Hollywood films, the media has repeatedly failed in interrogate the view that Islam and Muslim fundamentalism are inextricable and that the Islamic faith and Western values are incompatible. But the response to the tragic death of an American ambassador and three others has maybe marked a change in attitudes that have frequently jumped to cast the Muslim in a negative role and whoever is on the other side in a positive one.
It remains to be seen whether we will actually see a change and the development of a more balanced presentation of Islam in Western media. The onus is certainly on the media to strive to avoid the easy stereotypes by providing the necessary context, analysis and perspective. But, I hope that as the "Innocence of Muslims" is criticized for being senseless provocation, a debate about the portrayal of the Islam in the media will gain momentum.