Typically a YouTube video’s success is measured in likes, views, and positive comments. But there are some statistics that can be more telling: injuries and deaths.
In July, a Youtube user who goes by the name of “Sam Bacile” uploaded a 14- minute video entitled Muhammad Movie Trailer, which sparked an outcry resulting in almost 700 injuries and 75 deaths across the Middle East.
The video, a trailer for an independent film entitled Innocence of Muslims, portrayed the Islamic prophet Mohammed fairly negatively, which is frowned upon and heavily discouraged within Islam.
In September, the video was dubbed in Arabic and received international exposure, accumulating in demonstrations and riots on September 11,which resulted in the death of U.S. Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens and 18 others.
To fully understand the reaction to the video, it’s important to consider the significance of Muhammad amongst Muslims.
“The Prophet Muhammad’s way of life, actions, mannerisms serve as a practical guide for Muslims to follow. Thus Muslims try to emulate him in every little aspect be it growing a beard, dealing with patience, respect, honor, etcetera,” said Thashin Sadar, President of the Islamic Society of Greater Lansing.
“When Muslims saw their role model being abused with a deliberate intention of insulting him, our God and religion, people took it very hard upon themselves. When what you believe in so dearly and try to implement his teachings in every facet of your life is insulted, people react angrily to it.”
Despite this, unflattering depictions of Muhammad are not uncommon. In fact, there have been a number of similar incidents in the past. There was even a heavily promoted Everybody Draw Muhammad Day in 2010, which generated considerable controversy.
“Some Americans continue to represent him to make an anti-Islamic statement and/or to make a statement concerning Freedom of Speech,” said Mohammad Khalil, professor of religious studies, specifically Modern Muslim Thought, at Michigan State University.
“What is more, for those living under authoritarian regimes that regularly censor the media, it may have been difficult to comprehend why the United States government could allow this film to be produced.”
This miscommunication between cultures is something many other commentators and spectators have noted, including Sadar.
“There needs to be a dialogue on what free-speech is and media content that is deemed hateful against people or religion or cultures should be denounced swiftly by people of all faiths and standing,” Sadar said. “Hate propaganda should be countered with one of education, love and understanding.”
However, Sadar is not optimistic in this regard.
“Unfortunately, nothing much will change,” said Sadar. “Free speech is here to stay and will continue to be abused by the ungentlemanly kind. It has, and it will lead to more hate between people of different religions, cultures. Instead of building bridges of understanding, it will divide and pit people against one another. More lives will be lost and property will be damaged.”
Sadar said it is a misconception that these protests are only motivated by the video and the disparity between freedoms of speech.
He also said that he believes America’s tenuous relationship with the Middle East undoubtedly played a role.
“There were pent up feelings in the predominantly Muslim majority countries in what they perceive as American aggression on their countries under the guise of war on terror, and continued occupation of their lands and undue influence in their governance,” he said.
An Arab-American student at MSU, who wishes to remain anonymous, also believes international relations played a large role. The student acted as a translator for the U.S. army in Cairo in 2008, and witnessed Anti-Americanism firsthand.
“U.S. foreign policy, such as military actions and support of Israel, further divides the West and the Middle East,” he said. “Many people would have dismissed the provocative intentions of the video clip, had they not have been convinced that it reflected the sentiments of the US government.”
Khalil said that another largely accepted fallacy is that the majority of the Muslim world is supporting and encouraging violent protesting. However, this is countered by evidence that those participating in such protests make up 0.1 percent of the 1.5 billion Muslims worldwide.
“The protests may be widespread, but the number of protestors constitutes a relatively small proportion of the Muslim population,” he said. “Like the protestors, the majority of Muslims were probably offended by the film. But many of those who did not protest stressed the Qur’anic command: Be patient with whatever they may say.”