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Innocence of Muslims - A Case For Civil Society

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"Sam Bacile's" Innocence of Muslims brings nothing new. Medieval European literature is littered with similar comparisons and after "Bacile" they will continue. Whilst the solution during the medieval period was medieval, in a post-modern world the reaction however distasteful, cannot be medieval. It is easy to blame religious zealotry for the violent response but it is also about articulating genuine anger and dissent.

The response to "Bacile's" film is indicative of how post-revolution Middle East is wrestling with these very issues. A case in point is the recent screening of Omar, a dramatization of a close companion of the Prophet by Middle East Broadcasting Channel (MBC). The drama aroused controversy because the depiction of a close companion of the Prophet is considered taboo. The producers of the drama went to great lengths in ensuring due respect given the topic. Despite consultation with eminent religious authorities, beautiful cinematography and poetry of its Arabic politicians and autocratic emirs condemned the film as sacrilege. Few of these, however, made a fuss when something even more sacrilegious; God incarnated as Alanis Morrisette in Dogma was broadcast on the little screen few years earlier.

Both cases illustrate the need for a space where ideas, however controversial, can be discussed. The Syrian poet Adunis is surely right when he suggests that freedom of consciousness is needed before democracy can ever flourish.

Some critics believe that Arab media is one of the places where this can occur. Unfortunately, Arab media in its present state cannot be the agora of debate. The truth is, it's still shackled and afflicted with the same problems that Simeon Djankov's study on media ownership has found -- wealthy elites manipulate the media to further their own agendas. Post-Revolution Independent Internet publications like Tunisia-live cannot compete with Internet giants who dominate the market. Disney alone controls over 30 Internet companies including ESPN and ABC news. The problem is further compounded by the vast powers that the state still exercises because it has inherited authoritarian media laws. The Islamist-led Tunisian government, itself a victim of dictatorship, has used the country's old censorship laws to prosecute Nabil Karoui for the broadcasting of Persepolis. More recently, Morsi's government has been accused of trying to control state media. This precarious situation suggests that the media is not the place where civil society can flourish.

Moreover, the Arab media landscape is populated by editors and broadcasters still used to operating within the milieu of the police state. The transformation of Mr. Karoui by Tunisian media is telling. The owner of Nessma TV, which is partly owned by Silvio Berlusconi's Mediaset empire, had state support because it countered pan-Islamism in the region. Mr. Karoui's channel reciprocated its vocal support for the former dictator through cheesy political advertising campaigns. However, following the broadcasting of the critically acclaimed Iranian film Persepolis and Mr. Karoui's subsequent prosecution, this Ben Ali supporter was transformed Ovid-like into a martyr of free speech. The Tunisian media, still filled with bourgeoisie Francophiles and Ben Ali supporters, had framed his prosecution into a moral crusade when it clearly was not. It is no wonder that Mustapha Ben Jafar, head of the constituent assembly, accused the Tunisian media of embellishment and distortion at the Council of Europe in June 2012. With the existence of journalists and broadcasters born out of the womb of dictatorships the task of creating that space for dialogue in the media is problematic.

The forum for dialogue is suffocated further by the Saudi presence. Despite the religious conservatism of the Saudi state, their influence permeates in the Arab media world; MBC channels, the Rotana channels, ART (Arab Radio and TV) are all Saudi owned and linked to the Royal family. The ethics of the Saudi state allowing its princes to peddle scantily clad pop starlets to the rest of the Arab world whilst preventing indecent content like medical brochures on breasts to its citizens becomes intelligible when one realizes that they want to control the discourse. They don't want people to articulate themselves fully. This is why some critics have accused Saudi-owned Alarabiya of serving as a propaganda tool to counter Aljazeera's anti-American anti-Saudi stance. This is also why except for Aljazeera there is an absence of hard-hitting investigative journalism. Any sort of real investigation would ruffle too many feathers. Saudi-owned broadsheets like As-Sharq al-Awsat, al-Hayat and others have been censored hundreds of times. In 1994, Al-Hayat was banned 60 times, in 1995 34 times, in 1997 twenty times in Saudi Arabia. Editors may not want to self-censor but they are forced to and that inevitably stunts debate and civil society.

Arab media has certainly created closer ties within the Middle East. In its present form, however, it cannot be the vehicle for civil society and ideas. Partly because authoritarian governments may have fallen media conglomerates remain and is populated by journalists and editors imbued with the culture of the police state.

Perhaps this is wishful thinking but if the new Arab democracies have the courage to let go of the media it once controlled and conglomerates and journalists unlearn old habits the likes of "Sam Bacile's" films would be discussed, dissected and discarded into the dustbins of history.

This article is based on an extended piece soon to appear on Near East Quarterly