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In Yemen, protests mask diverse views on anti-Islam video

By Murad Alazzany, special to CNN
September 19, 2012 -- Updated 0602 GMT (1402 HKT)
Yemeni protesters shout slogans during a protest against a film deemed anti-Islamic in Sanaa on September 13.
Yemeni protesters shout slogans during a protest against a film deemed anti-Islamic in Sanaa on September 13.
  • Yemen has witnessed protests amid anger at the video "Innocence of the Muslims"
  • Academic: Many Yemenis are offended by the video yet differ in how they should respond
  • Alazzany: One preacher says the video was intended to drive anger against U.S. interests
  • Academic: Remnants of deposed regimes in region have used video as a political tool

Editor's note: Murad Alazzany is an assistant professor in the department of English Studies at Sanaa University, Yemen. His main research areas are "the representation of Islam and Islamic movements in the Western media." Currently, he is pursuing a project on the representation of the Arab Spring in the Western media.

Sanaa, Yemen (CNN) -- Many Yemenis, like Egyptians, Libyans and others, have been provoked by media reports about a film called "Innocence of Muslims" that maligns the Prophet Mohammed.

Last week, hundreds of protesters gathered in front of the U.S. Embassy in the capital, Sanaa, and broke in. Clashes between security forces and demonstrators left at least four protesters dead and more than 30 people injured, according to Yemeni officials.

Yemenis have many problems and difficulties in their daily lives. Nearly half of them live below the poverty line, almost seven million of them have no secure access to food, and they struggle to send their children to schools.

Murad Alazzany
Murad Alazzany

Such desperate situations are worsened by the ghost of separation in the south, the Houthis militants in the north and threats from al Qaeda, which at times launch suicide attacks.

In spite of these conditions, Yemenis feel hurt by the film mocking the prophet. It is difficult for many outside the country to understand why the film is inflammatory to Muslims: This, however, cannot be explained unless considered within its context.

The Prophet Mohammed is regarded as the highest authority in Islam. Through him the teachings of Islam and principles are revealed and conveyed: therefore to depict him as "womanizer" or "pedophile" is to claim wickedness at the foundation of the faith.

Besides, the content of the film is hostile, grossly inaccurate and prejudiced. It revealed the producer's attitude toward the prophet rather than the prophet's character. As such, Muslims felt insulted by such depiction of their prophet.

Understanding Islam and Mideast protests

But there is disagreement among Yemenis as to how they should react to the film. By talking to ordinary people, listening to preachers in the mosques and following posts and comments on Facebook, it seems that the mood of Yemenis can be divided into three.

Yemenis reject "democracy" such as this video, which allows the maligning of other faiths and beliefs
Murad Alazzany

One group believes that the film is insulting and that it is their religious duty to protest against it. They encouraged people to protest: It was members of this group who gathered in front of the U.S. Embassy.

Hezbollah calls for protests over film

The second group, despite being angry, reject violence as a means of protest. They view the embassy incident in Sanaa as an immoral act and believe there are ways to express anger without destroying property and plundering equipment. Such acts, they say, contradict the teachings and principles of Islam -- the religion of peace and tolerance. Members of this group are, in fact, plenty in number.

Violent protests spread to Yemen

The third group believe it was a kind of stupidity to show any reaction to the film and that it gives its producers the publicity they are looking for. They likened its production to terrorist attacks, through which publicity is intended more than destruction and casualties. Thus, the best way to ensure the film will fail is to completely ignore it.

Yet still the film has triggered plenty of political disputes and arguments in Yemen, as well as the other countries of the Arab Spring. The remnants of deposed regimes have used it as a political tool to accuse revolutionary forces of being more concerned to preserve their alliance with the U.S. than to defend the prophet, and also allege that the Arab revolutions were planned and plotted by the U.S. through its allies in the area. As such, they say, the region's new governments, including that of Yemen, are no more than puppets of the U.S. administration.

On the other hand, most of the revolutionaries believe the U.S. is not to blame for the film. During Friday prayers, one preacher in the mosque stated the film was intended to irritate Muslims and drive their anger against U.S. interests in the area. He encouraged Muslims to be rational than emotional. It is an exploitation of resources, he said, for a nation to confront an individual who wants to make a hero of himself on account of Muslims' resentment and anger.

Yemenis generally do not consider such an attack on the prophet as demonstrating freedom of speech, the essence of democracy. Democracy, for them, does not justify the vilification of other beliefs, but to show respect for them.

The Arab Spring showed that when Yemenis protest, they want justice and dignity, which are the core of democratic principles. The Arab Spring improved this situation because the U.S. demonstrated its support for the revolutionary movement in Yemen and other Arab countries.

But Yemenis reject "democracy" such as this video, which allows the maligning of other faiths and beliefs.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Murad Alazzany.

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