Southeast Asia Contains Anti-Islam Film Fallout
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Southeast Asia Contains Anti-Islam Film Fallout

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Over the last few days, the world has witnessed uproar in more than 20 countries over video clips from “Innocence of Muslims”, a U.S.-made anti-Muslim film ridiculing the Prophet Muhammad, including assaults on several U.S. embassies which have left a top American diplomat dead. While the outrage over the film has not thus far been as fierce in Southeast Asia as it has been in the Middle East, the governments in the two large Muslim-majority countries – Malaysia and Indonesia – have nonetheless moved swiftly to try to contain any potential violence.

In Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country, the reaction to the clip was critical but not radical. On September 13, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s spokesman for international affairs, Teuku Faizasyah, said Yudhoyono denounced the movie for “the element of blasphemy” but also because it had resulted in the loss of lives which he truly regretted. Indonesia’s National Ulema Council (MUI) also explicitly asked all Indonesians to show restraint and not overreact to the film through violent protests. Hundreds of members of the Indonesian Muslim group Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI) did stage a protest in front of the U.S. embassy on Friday, but it was largely peaceful. The embassy compound was also heavily guarded by around 400 Indonesian policemen, including dozens in riot gear.

Even though the reaction was mostly non-violent, the government nevertheless demanded as early as September 13 that YouTube block access to the film. Communications and Information Ministry spokesman Gatot Dewa Broto said the “offensive” film had clearly upset Indonesian Muslims and the government did not want “violence to break out here.” Google emailed the government that evening to announce that it had blocked Indonesian access to 16-related URLs on their site, according to an article in The Australian. Film extracts were still available on YouTube on Sunday, but Broto said “a special effort” was being made to restrict access. Jakarta has also written separately to Blackberry maker Research in Motion (RIM) to filter the videos on smartphones, and has found it to be “very cooperative.” Indonesia is RIM’s biggest market outside North America, which gives the company strong incentive to oblige Jakarta’s request.

In neighboring Malaysia, reactions have been similarly muted relative to the Middle East, and leaders have also focused on criticizing the film’s narrative while discouraging overreaction. Prime Minister Najib Razak refuted the movie’s narrative that “all Muslims are extremists”, while Foreign Minister Anifah Aman said the producers should rectify the situation for the sake of peace. Home Minister Hishammuddin Hussein also cautioned Malaysians to “be rational but firm and not over emotional to the point national security is threatened.” Other political parties have also chimed in, with all actors fixed on upcoming general elections which must be held before April next year. Anwar Ibrahim, the leader of the opposition, urged the U.S. to “hold to account” the individuals responsible, but also unequivocally condemned “the senseless killing” that had taken place. The spiritual leader of the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) Nik Aziz Nik Mat meanwhile labeled the film producers crazy and urged the authorities to take firm action. While some of these statements have been critical, there has been little sign yet of any visceral one-upmanship among parties in a bid to score political points on the issue which could radicalize the reaction further.

In terms of protests, Agence France-Presse reported several in different parts of the country on Friday, ranging from the northern city of Ipoh to Batu Caves, a popular tourist location outside the country’s capital Kuala Lumpur. However, no violence was reported. A group of around 30 people from Islamic organizations did march to the U.S. embassy to hand-deliver a request for the U.S. to take the clip off YouTube, but the demonstration was peaceful and the protesters clarified that they condemned the violence in the Middle East that had led to the death of several Americans.

Nonetheless, the government appears to be taking no chances and has wasted no time in following suit in clamping down. On Saturday, Malaysia’s Information, Communications and Culture Minister Rais Yatim revealed he had instructed the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission to “ban the access of the movie trailer via YouTube and other channels,” and that the ban should serve “as a warning” to local and foreign parties that the government will not tolerate “negative elements touching upon racial and religious sensitivities.” And on Sunday, the Associated Press quoted Rais as saying that Kuala Lumpur had officially asked Google to block access to the video clip, citing “explosive commotions and repercussions at hand.” While such radical reactions have been mostly absent so far in both Malaysia and Indonesia, the governments in both countries seem determined to act preemptively to ensure the violence in the Middle East does not spread to Southeast Asia.

Prashanth Parameswaran is a PhD candidate in international relations at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and a non-resident WSD-Handa fellow at CSIS Pacific Forum. You can read his blog The Asianist at and follow him on Twitter at @TheAsianist.

Comments
7

[...] into violence. Why, for instance, were reactions to the film in Southeast Asian countries far quieter than those in Arab countries? When answering this question, it’s essential to consider the [...]

Nym
September 24, 2012 at 13:37

I am rather appalled that Google did not consider this video to be a ToS violation. They work harder to censor porn than they do this, and porn doesn't cause riots and civil war.

InReply
September 22, 2012 at 00:43

Hi Ahmad, that is a well crafted and thought out reply, and it gives food for thought.  After all, screaming fire in a crowded theater is not protected speech because as you said, it is an action design to incite panic.
However, one must also point out the numerous films mocking respected figures of other religions which have no caused such a reaction, so it is hard to see this film as action and not speech.
South Park making fun of Christianity, Catholicism, Scientology, Mormonism, to name a few religions, comes to mind here, as they are perhaps the most outrageous and humiliating of the bunch of internationally broadcast and commercially successful forms of entertainment to do so.
While practitioners of these religions are upset and feel disrespected, they do not act out in violence, nor in protest.  Instead, they allow viewers the opportunity to make up their own mind, while also being able to laugh at the false representation of themselves.
Viewers are able to laugh at these offensive representations while still showing great respect to these religions.  No laws have been passed seeking to prohibit any of the religions made fun of by South Park inside the US.
No individuals or groups of people have made any efforts to ban these religions or commit hate crimes against practitioners of these religions.
So it's hard for people in the US to see this as an action given that it's okay to talk trash about every religion except Islam.  The power to critique and make fun of powerful groups, be they political or religious allows us to grow as a society, as this film as already started a discussion about Good Muslims vs Bad Muslims.
Comedy in general is the result of disrespecting someone or something.  And given the comfort and joy provided by good comedy, even attempts that result in bad or poor comedy (and this film is definitely a bad attempt) are seen as speech and therefore must be protected.
Speech isn't the same thing as action, but this film did nothing to incite hatred of Muslims nor encourage violence against them.  So in most people's eyes, and 99% of the US identify themselves as Christian, see this as a matter of speech, not action.  No one likes what the filmmaker did, but they defend his right to do so.

InReply
September 22, 2012 at 00:16

Google is a private entity which is free to censor itself for the sake of greater business opportunity.  As it did when bowing down to China in order to access their market of billions of potential users.
Free Speech governs the US (sometimes), as it does Canada and the Nordic ones.  But most countries, even other western ones (ie UK, France, Germany), don't allow the same freedom, and have the sovereign right to do so in order to keep their own citizens happy.
While they chose to give into pressure on this issue, and reflects on them badly, let there be no illusion that they haven't done it before and won't do it again.
Hell, see what's happening with the Occupy Wall St. protestors, who have their right to peacefully assemble being trampled upon by the cops they pay to protect them.  It's only a matter of whose speech we're choosing to protect.

ahmad
September 21, 2012 at 21:31

Its baffling to me that those who have crafted these definitions of political rights such as " freedom of speech " themselves have forgotten 1) the difference between freedom of action and speech 2) the parameter that distinguishes absolute freedom from civilized freedom. 3)  The dividing line between ones freedom and and others right.
lets not forget that the production of a movie targeted towards the religious sentiments of almost one-third of the world population is not freedom of speech but an unrestrained freedom of action. A deliberate action targeted to humiliate a certain community. More than that because making a movie is not speech but an action, thus justifying this freedom of action, which is only at the cost of infringement of others right is, as calling other acts  such as theft, fraud, deceive, all legitimate. In civilized society your freedom of actions, speech and everything else is limited by your duty to respect other persons beliefs, norms, and  freedom as well. 
Only through mutual respect, can the world prosper and you cant make other respect you by humiliating them. We need to respect each others believes, for us to survive in increasingly interconnected world. 

davida
September 18, 2012 at 17:54

why r all those china-haters? there is a big party here and all those freaks are invited.

Russ
September 18, 2012 at 13:41

And it is shame on Google et al for giving in to this kind of death worshipping nonsense censor themselves; while 'voluntary' it is still shameful to self-censor, on the basis of keeping the peace. Perhaps someone could kindly place make a video for youtube that explains freedom of expression includes the right to offend. There is a peaceful solution to all this, the offended get over themselves, cease witch-doctor worship, and most of all – GROW UP!!   The rest of you? – Stop apologizing!  

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