SocialEyez analyses Arab world social media on "Innocence of Muslims"
On Tuesday, September 11, images like the one to the left burst into the global news cycle as demonstrators turned out en masse to condemn "Innocence of Muslims," an obscure film production that crudely and hatefully depicts the life of the Prophet Mohammed. Demonstrators attacked American Embassies in Cairo, Libya, and Yemen. Hundreds were injured and dozens killed in protests throughout the Mid-East and in other predominantly Muslim countries, such as Pakistan and Indonesia.
This Buzz Report examines the Arab world’s social media reaction to the film. The following analysis is based on 145,436 mentions of the film and the events that ensued, captured from Arabic language social media during the period September 11-21, 2012.
Social Media Shows Rage Focussed on U.S. Government
As revealed by social media, protesters’ rage focused on the U.S. government. Why? First, it appeared that protesters equated the lack of censorship of the film and failure to prosecute its makers with official support. Second, the region is rife with conspiracy theories about American-Zionist plans to instigate sectarian strife. Demonstrators also noted what they believed to be a double-standard concerning the application of freedom of speech, commenting that in the U.S. a similar movie about Jews would have immediately been condemned as anti-Semitic, but that abuses towards Muslims would be tolerated.
The general notion that Islamic culture is under sustained attack from Western states was also a common theme, with users referencing the controversy over the Danish cartoons, the banning of the hijab in France, and a Christian extremist preacher’s burning of the Quran in the United States.
Unleashing Decades of Resentment: The Last Straw
Finally, and perhaps most important for understanding how the anti-U.S. protests escalated so quickly, Arab and Muslim attitudes toward the U.S. are shaped by more than just the film, and have more to do with what they consider a series of American abuses in the region. These include U.S. support for Israel, punishing sanctions on the Gaza Strip, support for regional dictators, and the 2003 invasion of Iraq, to name only a few. In a sense, "Innocence of Muslims" was the last straw that unleashed decades of resentment toward American foreign policy in the region.
These attitudes permeated Arabic-language social media discourse throughout the region. In parallel, several more nuanced discussions transpired in nearly every country. These reflect a region that is deeply uneasy about its own security and fearful for Islam’s global reputation.
Traffic Volume Varied Between Countries
- Egypt and Libya generated the highest volume of social media about this issue, together generating 38% of the total over the monitoring period. Libya’s large contribution to the volume is related to the fact that the murder of four American diplomats at the U.S. embassy in Benghazi was initially reported to be related to mob violence provoked by the film. While it has now been confirmed that the killings were a terrorist attack, the incident remains part of the narrative of reactions to the film.
- By contrast Saudi Arabia, the spiritual heart of Sunni Islam where the holy cities of Mecca and Medina are located, generated surprisingly little traffic (1,239 comments). This is probably a result of the Saudi Communications and Information Technology Commission’s decision to block all links to websites carrying the film.
- Also noticeably absent from the discussion were users in Syria, where the gravity of internal conflict has consumed the majority of social media users’ attention for well over a year.
Discussion Emphasis Varied Between Countries
While the film was nearly universally condemned across the Arab region, the discussion varied from country to country. In some countries user reactions emphasized anxieties about sectarian fault lines within the different countries, and the strain the region’s various political conflicts are exerting on sectarian relations.
In parallel across the region, there was also much comment about how best to respond to insults to the sacred. A major and recurrent concern was that the violence had not only provided the film with a free propaganda campaign, but also, in the eyes of many, proved depictions of Muslims as violent and barbaric.
Introspection as well as self-criticism were also a large part of the social media discourse. Specifically, users referred to the disingenuousness of the protests and demonstrations, noting that righteous indignation over an insignificant online video does not extend to the real-world crises experienced by the Arab region today.
- In Egypt, for example, user reactions reflected general concern about the potential to damage Muslim-Christian relations – especially tense since the 2011 revolution – as well as consensus on the offensiveness and inappropriateness of the film. 86% of users explicitly rejected the film and its message, and 35% called for unity between Copts and Muslims.
in Lebanon, users responded to efforts of leaders of competing
religious-political movements who used the film as an opportunity for
grandstanding. Hezbollah leader Hassan
Nasrallah’s call for protests on September 16 sharply divided users. Half of comments on the issue criticized Nasrallah’s accusation that the
U.S. was seeking to sow Muslim Christian tensions in the region, noting that
Nasrallah himself promotes sectarian violence in Lebanon, as well as
neighbouring Syria, where a predominantly Sunni led rebellion seeks to unseat
the ruling Alawite regime, a key Hezbollah patron.
under half (45%) took a more benign view of the Hezbollah leader’s rhetoric.
When Lebanon’s controversial Salafist sheikh Ahmad al-Assir led a rally in Beirut on September 21 to protest the film, reactions were similarly divided. Though Assir received a more favorable review from social media users than Nasrallah did (50% of users expressed support for the protest and heaped praise on the sheikh), criticisms (45%) again reflected anxiety about sectarian tension in Lebanon, and the potential of the conflict in Syria to aggravate this tension.
- Likewise in Iraq, protests against the film organized by Shi’ite leaders Muqtada Sadr and Ammar al-Hakim also met charges of sectarianism and hypocrisy from social media users.
- In Egypt, Libya, and beyond, attacks on U.S. interests were widely condemned.
- Social media conversation in Libya was awash with condemnations of the attack on the U.S. embassy in Benghazi. The conversation evolved into a discussion of the theory and evidence that the killings were the result of a terrorist attack unrelated to any demonstration, and became concerned about the presence of Al Qaeda on Libyan soil.
(Thanks to The Truth Is Now.com for the image.)