Cartoons, Lard, and YouTube: An Inquiry into Religious Rage

They’re after your babies!!!

In 1857, Muslim and Hindu soldiers under the employ of the East India Company heard a rumor, not without basis, that the Company planned to issue new rifle cartridges that would have to be bitten in order to release the gunpowder. These cartridges were to be lubricated using lard (pig-grease) or tallow (cow-grease), something offensive to Muslim and Hindu dietary laws, respectively. Several contingents rebelled against their British commanders, riots broke out throughout northern India, and before long there were calls from Hindu and Muslim rebels to restore the politically weakened Mughal Emperor, Bahadur II, to full sovereignty over India and to expel the British.

The British public was presented by the press with stories about the rape of innocent Christian women, the religious fanaticism of the Muslims, and the valiant struggle of superior British values in a harsh and barbaric land. Christian missionaries complained that they had not been given free enough rein to impart these values, and were now suffering atrocities at the hands of the heathen. And all because of some lard?

Well, not really. Historians looking back at the Indian Mutiny (and indeed more than a few more discerning contemporaries from Britain and India) readily see the bloody revolt as an expression of a whole whirlwind of social and political tensions. The top of the list, obviously, is the piece-meal annexation of the sub-continent over three centuries by a foreign economic power. But closer study of the rebellion reveals that it was not simply a native vs. British scenario. Hindu castes were pitted against one another, and Muslim statelets fought with one another over territory as often as they fought against the British. Competition for power and status was fierce in a rapidly changing political context.

At the end of the revolt, the last Mughal emperor was exiled, the British crown assumed direct control of the colony from the Company, and the British public called for harsh and merciless penalties against the Hindu and Muslim offenders. Indian constituencies that had sided with the British, such as the Sikhs, found themselves in a far more privileged position than they had been, while mutinying Muslims found themselves tied to the front of a cannon and burst asunder, to the cheers of proper Victorian ladies in parlors half a world away.

It was not, ultimately, about the lard, although that may have served as the trigger, nor was it really about British values.

We are once again faced with media images of a young angry Muslim mob™ and headlines like “Film Provokes Rage across Muslim World.” Echoes of the Danish Muhammad cartoon controversy of 2005 are clear. But in both cases, the failure of much of our media to give us sufficient context in each country in which the protests are going on allows most of the American audience to say, “There they go again, those angry, intolerant Muslims that don’t like free speech.” We collectively stick them in storm trooper helmets, allowing them to be faceless, villainous clones.

The still unfolding story has been both alarmingly deadly with the deaths of the U.S. Ambassador and three of his staff in Libya and one protester in Yemen and truly bizarre, as the identity and motives of the film-maker seem wrapped in an onion of deception. And, as expected in an election year (scratch that, in all years), our politicians try to find the best news-cycle spin for their agenda.

Everyone should know by now that offending the Prophet Muhammad is not going to go over well with a Muslim audience. But one has to have one’s eyes closed to not see that there are insults to Muhammad sprinkled all over the Internet. There are individuals whose whole career seems built around stoking fear and anger from and against Muslims. So why this video, why now, and why in the places these protests have turned violent?

I would submit that it is not, ultimately, about the film or religious offense, although that has served as the trigger, nor is it about Free Speech™. Instead, it is about power, and local power, as opposed to a global or anti-American agenda.

It is not a coincidence that the three first flashpoints were in Egypt, Libya, and Yemen, three hotspots of the Arab Spring. And the balance of power in each of these countries is vastly different, though all three share a precarious security situation.

Egypt’s recent election has brought the Muslim Brotherhood to executive power after decades of being a vocal and often persecuted political opponent to the nationalistic regime. They have evolved quite a bit from their days as a violent revolutionary group against Nasser. They are the granddaddy of Islamist parties and advocate conservative religious values, but despite their election victory, they are aware that their position is precarious. Their status as long-time voice of the opposition may only get them so far when the revolution in Tahrir Square was made up of Egyptians from across the political spectrum. Despite years of rhetoric, they will be forced to build working relationships with both the U.S. and Israel. How far they can push for their conservative social views has yet to become clear.

Khaled ‘Abdullah, proposed roommate for Glenn Beck

It appears that an Egyptian Rush Limbaugh-esque shock jock Khaled ‘Abdullah drew attention to the film trailer dubbed into Arabic on his program, in which he regularly spouts anti-Copt and anti-Jewish rhetoric. Though it now turns out that filmmaker “Sam Bacile,” the Israeli ex-pat real estate mogul, does not exist, one can imagine the political resonance in Egypt of a supposedly Jewish and Coptic funded anti-Muslim film. President Mursi is in a tough spot. While the supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood might be expected to protest an anti-Muhammad film, Mursi appealed to Coptic voters during his campaign, and it may certainly have helped his victory. The Copts, meanwhile, are widely perceived to have benefitted economically under Sadat and Mubarak and are eager to appear cooperative with a regime that has so far avoided much anti-Coptic rhetoric, despite rumbling resentment in some corners of Egypt. The Egyptian Coptic community’s rapid denunciation of the film is understandable. Mursi’s ambivalence – he has called for continued protests against the film on the condition they be peaceful and not held outside anyone’s embassy – is likewise comprehensible, albeit frustrating to the Obama administration. It does, however, call into question his control over security.

The Libyan situation is murkier at the moment. The Libyan and American governments are investigating the possibility that the film protests were used as a pretext for an already-planned attack on the consulate. Unlike in Egypt, Libya’s Islamists did not win their election, and many Libyans, particularly in Benghazi, one of the strongholds of the anti-Qaddafi rebellion, are very pro-American (they have held counter-protests in recent days). However, the new government has had a hard time establishing its authority when many political factions have remained armed since the rebellion. Although initial suspicions pointed to local Islamist groups, it can’t be ruled out at this point that former Qaddafi loyalists or even al-Qa’ida in North Africa might have planned the attack.

What is devastatingly tragic is that Ambassador Stevens worked closely with the Libyan opposition and is part of the reason the Libyans have been so pro-American of late. He was a career diplomat who had learned to care about the countries where he represented the U.S. Libya’s perception of America has certainly changed, but this will certainly set back American perceptions of Libya.

Yemen, likewise, has a precarious security situation. Although ‘Ali ‘Abdullah Saleh has stepped down as president, his vice president was elected as his successor, as the only candidate. Islamist opposition parties in Yemen are thus neither defanged by democratic rejection, as in Libya, nor empowered, as in Egypt.

Politics really is local. Even the tendency of the press to depict these protests as a global confrontation between the “Free West” and the “Islamic World” is a distortion that, once again, will mostly benefit local interests, whether those be the interests of the American Right, the Islamist parties of certain countries, or the Iranian regime, which can freely organize anti-American protests to shore up its legitimacy whenever the need arises. The movie is indeed offensive, but even such offense will not spontaneously give rise to violence unless someone has an interest in making it so and stirring the pot. And there have been plenty of pot-stirrers.


A Plague on Both Your Plagiarisms

Plagiarism has been in the news a lot recently.  Two of the bigger stories have been Fareed Zakaria’s admitted cribbing of another article on gun control and the case at Harvard where over 100 students are being investigated for collaborating on a take-home exam.  There’s been a lot of hand-wringing in academia about what we could possibly be doing wrong that so many students and former students out in the world seem to not get the problem with plagiarism.

Excuses people offer for plagiarism range from “I didn’t know that’s what I doing” to “I knew what I was doing, but there’s just so much pressure” (which seems to have been Zakaria’s excuse).  For the record, I admire Zakaria considerably and think he has had a tremendously and uniquely positive influence on international coverage in the mainstream media.  I would hate to see him toppled by this, and I doubt that he will be, despite his apologists’ hyperbolic comparison of the press reaction to a lynch mob.  He should rightly, however, be slapped on the wrist and feel some shame for his deed.

I’ve only come across a few clear cases of deliberate plagiarism among my students in my career (even that is too much).  What is more common is “unintentional” plagiarism, cases that skirt the line and seem to have more to do with students’ fuzziness about what they should do than any intention to steal and mislead.  You could chalk this up to a decline in ethics, an increase in academic pressure, or the technological ease of cutting-and-pasting, but today I’d like to focus on the mixed messages that are being transmitted to students by educators and by the Internet media.  The first, which I will call the “copyrightification” (ugh, I hope I can’t claim credit for that neologism) of plagiarism, we have some control of; the second, the growth of “crowd-sourcing” models on the Internet, is probably here to stay.


When I look at how my institution (and others) initially present the issue of plagiarism to new students, I am struck by the complicated rules.  First, there are the citation methods.  Proper citation is, of course, important for stylistic purposes, but using a footnote instead of a parenthetical citation does not constitute plagiarism.  Citation method has absolutely nothing to do with plagiarism or academic honesty.  Why do we even present that to them in the same syllabus paragraph or composition unit?  I’ve always tried to emphasize the reasons we cite in the first place (verifiability, scientific method, etc.) rather than the proper order for bibliographic information (again, those things are important, but they have nothing to do with plagiarism).  In my first case of plagiarism, the entire essay was lifted word-for-word from a text by the 14th-century theologian ibn Taymiyya found in required course text anthology.  When confronted about why her essay sounded like a grumpy, dead Muslim guy, the student apologized for not putting quotation marks around the selection (which was the entire essay!)  It’s bizarre, but telling.  The student probably knew that copying like that was dishonest, but they tried to get out of it by claiming ignorance of citation method.

Add to that the emphasis on penalties, which seems to criminalize plagiarism.  Now, I want to be clear that there should be consequences for academic dishonesty, but the emphasis on justice can distract from the issue.  At my institution there is an impressive student committee that hears various cases of honor violations. The students take justifiable pride in this long-standing tradition.  But what has always struck me as odd is that the process and consequences for dealing with a case of plagiarism and a case of sexual assault are nearly identical: a very large burden of proof is laid upon the accuser and a guilty verdict results in immediate expulsion.  Leaving aside the advisability of sexual assaults being dealt with “in-house”, I wonder in what universe these are equivalent violations of honor.  Again, plagiarism is indeed an infraction of academic honesty and should have consequences, but we’re sending nonsensical signals on the matter,

Add to this the current “problem” of piracy and copyright infringement, which has gone over the top in many ways.  One of my mother’s favorite restaurants, named Sony’s Diner after Sonya, the owner, was forced to change its name after a lawsuit filed by a large technology company of the same name.  Younger people see very little wrong with sticking it to the man, if the man is a bloated, greedy corporation.  Digital Rights Management, through which computer program usage is controlled through an Internet connection is seen by many as an intrusion, treating law-abiding consumers as potential criminals (and track their computer activity) in order to catch the pirates who can usually bypass the DRM pretty easily.  I am certainly not pro-piracy, but treating plagiarism as copyright infringement is just ridiculous.  Copyright is about economic rights.  In my field at least, academic authors aren’t in it for the money, which is good, because they don’t really get any for their publications.  Respect from peers may play a role, but the real issue is the scientific method, the ability to track an idea back to its source to see if you can replicate or corroborate the author’s analysis.  Equating plagiarism with Internet piracy makes as much sense as punishing it the same as a sexual assault.


I’ve always been of two minds about Wikipedia.  On the one hand, the idea that reality can be determined by how many “likes” or “hits” a fact gets is profoundly disturbing.  As Stephen Colbert’s term wikiality conveys, this attitude has come to shape the entire way we consume news and media.   While Wikipedia and its ilk are getting slightly better about attribution (houses built on sand, anyone?), it is still little more than a glorified blog consisting of self-motivated contributions – sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s bad (yep, this is a blog.  Clap me in irony!)

On the other hand, there is something exciting about what we now call “crowd-sourcing”, the creation of works of scholarship or art that are built through a collaboration with the public.  I think this phenomenon is with us to stay in some form or other, for good or ill.  Some of the traditional forms of authorship and ownership are being eroded, and that might not be an entirely bad thing.  Proprietary rights to ideas appears to be a distinctly modern concept.  Certainly medieval authors in Europe and the Islamic World credited predecessors and colleagues in their works of scholarship, but the process of copying texts often involved additions, editing, and commentary that allowed these sources to continue growing and evolving long after the original authors were gone.  This phenomenon can be maddening for historians and philologists, but wrapping your head around the different sense of authorship that existed before our era can be key to truly understanding how these thinkers viewed the nature of knowledge itself.

In conclusion, I think plagiarism is a problem, but the solution to the problem doesn’t lie in couching the issue in a legalistic framework that reduces it to copyright law or citation methodology.  Instead, we need to focus on the more fundamental, albeit more slippery, cultural assumptions about authorship, collaboration, and the scientific method.  We perhaps need to be open to the possibility that these assumptions are rapidly evolving into something new.  Is there a way to harness the democratization of knowledge to the pursuit of integrity and truth, or are we doomed to a dystopian wikiality?