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Salman Rushdie to Sam Bacile: The Age of Outrage-ism

A mysterious man in California hires a soft porn director and tricks some low-rent actors into making a trashy movie about the Prophet Muhammad.

Now an Iranian foundation ups the price on Salman Rushdie’s head saying that if he had been killed earlier for blasphemy, this newest anti-Islam film would never have been made.

Forget the Crusades, Palestine, the toppling of the democratically-elected Mossadegh in Iran in 1953.

We are expected to believe that Salman Rushdie is the slippery slope that has led to Sam Bacile.

Protests in Iran against the Prophet film. AFP.

The logic is so ludicrously tortured that it should be the butt of jokes. Instead it turns deadly serious and leaves a US ambassador and others dead in Libya and a gathering storm of mobs from Pakistan to Yemen.

After the 9/11 attacks, Americans grappled with the question “Why do they hate us so?”

Now that question has morphed into “Why are they so easily offended?”

Writing in the Washington Post, Fouad Ajami, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution sees this as a “lack of modernity” because modernity, he says, “requires the willingness to be offended". (By that definition, India is most definitely un-modern since Indians of  all political colours and religious denomination have turned being offended into a cottage industry of sorts. Being offended has become an expression not of piety or hurt,  but really a show of political muscle. Look, we can get this movie banned, this painter exiled, this text yanked from the syllabus.)

Ajami writes that the Middle East is hyper-sensitive about its glorious past and its abject present. That makes it “brittle and proud about their culture, yet deeply ashamed of what they see around them” when it comes to economic growth, political freedom and the status of women.

He sets up a clash of civilisations with the barbarians literally at the gates.

It is inside those fortresses (the US consulates and embassies), the gullible believe, that rulers are made and unmade. Yet these same diplomatic outposts dispense coveted visas and a way out to the possibilities of the Western world. The young men who turned up at the US Embassies this week came out of this deadly mix of attraction to American power and resentment of it.

This is an attractive hypothesis for many Western readers, liberals and conservatives alike, because it keeps the West on top, the conclave of the civilized, with the angry hordes railing against it because deep in their hearts they really want what it has to offer – democratic freedoms and running water.

But this outrage is not just a one-way stream like the line outside the US consulate. We are in the age of outrage-ism where you have to constantly up the ante to fan the flames. For that you need, writes Bobby Ghosh, in Time Magazine, a global outrage machine.

The US has a pastor like Terry Jones who wants to burn the Koran, try the Prophet, and promote Bacile’s trashy film. And Egypt has a TV host like al-Nas’ Sheikh Khaled Abdallah who Ghosh writes is “every bit as inflammatory and opportunistic as Jones”. The film had been rightly ignored until the likes of Jones and Abdallah jumped on it from either end. That, says Ghosh, became a “wolf whistle to the Salafists” who had been protesting for months outside the US embassy in Cairo demanding the release of Omar Abdel Rehman, the blind sheik imprisoned in the United States and charged with plotting a series of bomb attacks.

Ghosh writes:

Collectively, these hatemongers form a global industry of outrage, working feverishly to give and take offense, frequently over religion, and to ignite the combustible mix of ignorance and suspicion that exists almost as much in the U.S. as in the Arab world.

It’s not about a movie. That’s just the pretext, the excuse that groups that want to storm the embassy are waiting for. It suits all the actors concerned, Issandr El Amrani, a Moroccan-American journalist writes in Abu Dhabi's The National newspaper.

The resulting cascade of outrage is now predictable. Islamophobes in the West will say, ‘We told you they’re fanatics,’ and the crowd-riling demagogues here will say, ‘We told you they disrespect us.’ And politicians everywhere will use the language of outrage in their petty calculations.

So the real question is not whether you ban one film or not but how do you puncture this global industry of outrage.

Salman Rushdie has one idea as he propounded to Sagarika Ghose on CNN-IBN.

I'm tired of religion demanding special privileges, I mean, just get over it. There's no other idea in the world that demands protection, you know. If ideas are strong, they can stand criticism.

Hafiz Saeed who participated in a rally in Lahore has a very different take.

We do not demand an apology alone from the US government but the hanging of all the persons involved in this blasphemous film. (That’s in addition to Pakistan needing to sever all relations with the Western world.)

Neither can the answer be let’s go back to a pre-Arab Spring world where the West coddles dictators in the Middle East as long as they keep the oil flowing and the protesters in jail.

There will never be a world where these fanatics don’t exist. But could there be one where they don’t matter so much except to their own fringe? That needs addressing the actual socio-economic-political reasons that allow these hate mongers to flourish and bloom and sit on state-linked foundations like the one that raises the bounty on Rushdie’s scalp. That’s a long tedious process and the Arab Spring is just the beginning of it. The rulers in Egypt are already grappling with the contradictions of both encouraging the protests to defend Islam and having to send out riot troops to protect the American embassy from the defenders.

A friend compares it to the malaria epidemic that’s racking India now. The mosquito is not going to go away, no matter how annoying it is. You can deal with the endemic causes for it whether it’s trash, the felling of trees, or unchecked development. That won’t eradicate the mosquito but will minimize its nuisance potential. Or you can spray it with DDT and worse only to discover ten years down the line that yesterday’s pesky mosquito has turned into today’s mutant monster.