The events of recent days in the Middle East only forewarn of future turmoil as the democratization of the media in the West meets the political awakening in the Arab world.
The now-marginalized children of Facebook may have inaugurated the Arab Spring, which unleashed – some say liberated – anti-Western voices and actors long crushed by brutal autocrats. But now it is YouTube’s turn to roil the region. A 14-minute preview of a movie called “The Innocence of Muslims” – posted by a marginal Florida minister on what he refers to as “Judge Muhammad Day” (9/11) – is setting the region aflame as its spreads across the Web.
Welcome to our new world, where no one is in control – neither the West of its social media nor Arab rulers of their liberated subjects. This is a combustible mix.
Anything, no matter what the production value, from home videos of pets to porn to blasphemy, can go up on the Web without curation or editing. In the free Middle East, anti-Western groups are either now tolerated because the mainstream, including the new rulers, shares their views or because the new democratic states have yet to establish their monopoly over violence that makes them truly sovereign.
The old gatekeepers of power that guaranteed stability – from the sober Walter Cronkites of the old mainstream media who exercised editorial control to the Hosni Mubaraks who exercised repression – have been overthrown. (Though they feebly try to reassert themselves: The chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, who commands the world’s largest fleet of aircraft carriers and strategic bombers, pleaded over the phone to the Florida minister who posted the video – and who commands a miniscule congregation – to withdraw his support for the film.)
The conflicts of the future are thus going to be as much about the abundant cultural flows of the global information economy as about the scarcity of resources or the breach of territory. This is because contending values have been crowded into a common public square created by freer trade, the spread of technology, and the planetary reach of the media.
Only in such a world could a provocative Danish cartoon or a truly lame YouTube video on Muhammad inflame the pious and mobilize the militant across the vast and distant stretches of the Islamic world. Only in such a world would Chinese authorities seek to muzzle the artist Ai Weiwei only to find him in touch with the whole world through Twitter. Only in such a world would the Vatican pull out all the stops to convince the movie-viewing public that the fiction of “The Da Vinci Code” is not the same as eternal truth.
This global public square is the new space of power where images compete and ideas are contested; it is where hearts and minds are won or lost and legitimacy is established. It is a space both of friction and fusion where the cosmopolitan commons of the 21st century is being forged.
Sending warships, loaded with weapons, to the region can’t undo what Facebook and YouTube, loaded with messages, have done.
No military retaliation, or further violent attacks on diplomatic outposts, can erase the reality that what is sacred for America (freedom of expression, including sacrilege) and what is sacred for the Muslim world (their faith) are clashing values now contending on the same virtual terrain.
The issue goes beyond the most recent dissing of the Muslim faith to the overall message of Western-shaped globalization.
While it is true that the American creed respects all faiths, it is also true that those who hate Islam or respect nothing can also express themselves. Good faith and bad faith get equal billing in our democratized media culture.
Years before Osama bin Laden conceived of the assault on the Twin Towers in New York, Akbar Ahmed, a Pakistani scholar and former ambassador to Great Britain, grasped the mentality of siege gripping the Islamic world. After an extended trip through the remote villages of the Afghan-Pakistan border where the Taliban got its start, he reported that pious Muslims sense “there is no escape now, no retreat, no hiding place, from the demon” of the Western media, which he called "storm troopers" of the West. They feel, he wrote, “the more traditional a religious culture in our age of the media, the greater the pressure on it to yield” to the faithlessness and secularism of global civilization emanating from the West.
Mr. Akbar imagined that “it must have been something like this in 1258 when the Mongols were gathering outside Baghdad to shatter forever the greatest Arab empire in history. But, this time, the decision will be final. If Islam is conquered, there will be no coming back.”
Managing some semblance of stability in this new, out-of-control world is going to take some deft statesmanship. The West is not about to give up its defense of freedom of expression – whether Salman Rushdie’s “The Satanic Verses” or the “Innocence of Muslims” YouTube video. Muslims, militant or mainstream, are not about to give up the defense of their faith and its messenger.
Along with the advent of democracy in the Arab world, this is a new reality we will all have to live with. Let’s not pretend that this conflict isn’t real.
Nathan Gardels is editor-in-chief of NPQ and the Global Viewpoint Network of Tribune Media Services. He is co-author with Hollywood producer Mike Medavoy of “American Idol After Iraq: Competing for Hearts and Minds in the Global Media Age.”
© 2012 Global Viewpoint Network/ distributed by Tribune Media Services. Hosted online by The Christian Science Monitor.