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From anti-Islamic video to Newsweek cover: Irony, anyone?

September 17, 2012|By Matt Pearce
  • Newsweek's controversial "Muslim Rage" cover.
Newsweek's controversial "Muslim Rage" cover. (Newsweek )

“Muslim rage” is the headline, and it’s brought the country full circle. To recap: Americans made a grotesque video about Islam, violent protests ensued, and now other Americans have condemned Muslims for reacting poorly.

On Monday, Tina Brown’s Newsweek released a cover once again intended to provoke, outrage, create buzz and sell copies  of the magazine: "MUSLIM RAGE," the new cover reads in bold font, "HOW I SURVIVED IT, HOW WE CAN END IT." The text straddles a highly unflattering picture of screaming Muslim men in Morocco.

In the parlance of the Internet, this kind of thing could be called trolling -- that is, deliberately provoking people for the sake of attention. And it's how a crudely made YouTube video came to foment a global crisis in the first place.

The continuing protests over the anti-Islamic video resurrected a generations-old trope about a clash of civilizations between East and West, often portrayed as an irresolvable confrontation between faith and liberty.

But for many observers of both Middle East politics and American culture, that clash is fed by a yawning information gap that’s been exploited by provocateurs on both sides of the planet, be they filmmakers, imams or magazine publishers.

Many Muslims in the Middle East were unaware that hardly any Americans had seen the video and that the U.S. government doesn’t preapprove movie releases. In the United States, few Americans know about the hard-line Islamic power players who, in an effort to whip up the base, helped stoke protests that were relatively small by Middle Eastern standards.

The cover story was written by well-known culture warrior Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who once participated in a book burning for Salman Rushdie’s “The Satanic Verses” in Kenya before leaving the country and turning secular. Later, she helped Dutch director Theo van Gogh make a short film that aimed to link the Koran to the mistreatment of women in Islam; he was killed by a Muslim during the outrage that ensued.

Hirsi Ali writes that “a homicidal few in the Muslim world” believe “life itself has less value than religious icons, such as the prophet or the Quran.” She also writes that those supporting punishment for blasphemy “are not a fringe group” and “represent the mainstream of contemporary Islam.”

Many experts on the Middle East panned the piece.

“Extremists in [the Middle East and North Africa] claimed the video represented all Americans,” tweeted sociologist Zeynep Tufekci. "Now Newsweek claiming few thousand protesters represent all Muslims.”

“Newsweek had a chance to make some sense of complex events in Mideast for millions of Americans,” said Shadi Hamid, a fellow for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. “It apparently has no interest in doing so.”

What Newsweek clearly did have an interest in doing, however, was to get people talking about Newsweek. “Want to discuss our latest cover?” tweeted the magazine’s online companion site, the Daily Beast. “Let's hear it with the hashtag: #MuslimRage.”

And boy did Newsweek hear it with the hashtag #MuslimRage.

On Monday afternoon, all of the top tweets for #MuslimRage were sardonic, suggesting that the recurring cycle of outrage that so often accompanies free speech versus blasphemy controversies — which for each side typically end up consolidating stereotypes of Americans as arrogant and Muslims as savages — finally hit a firm wall of resistance with Newsweek’s cover.

“The irony of it is that Newsweek's next week's cover could be a picture of us outraged Twitter pundits with a similar headline,” tweeted @KarlreMarks.

In a Monday piece, Foreign Policy magazine's Marc Lynch suggested that the increased democratization brought by the 2011 Arab uprisings and social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter helped break down the barriers between cultures and tamp down the cycles of outrage compared to the previous protests over Danish cartoons in 2006 that left hundreds dead.

Newsweek defended its cover to Politico. “This week's Newsweek cover accurately depicts the events of the past week as violent protests have erupted in the Middle East (including Morocco where the cover image was taken),” wrote Andrew Kirk, PR Director at Newsweek & the Daily Beast.

Whether accurate or not, another Newsweek cover featured a digitally manipulated image of Princess Diana at age 50. 

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nation@latimes.com

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