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The Globe and Mail

Modern communication fans the flames of religious attacks

People shout and hold slogans in front of the U.S. embassy during a protest in Cairo September 11, 2012.


The movie isn't going to win any awards for artistic brilliance.

A 14-minute version circulating on the Internet relies on low-grade actors whose hackneyed lines demonize Islam. The Prophet Mohammed – strangely Aryan-looking for a person whom history records as having come from Mecca – is mocked as a hypocritical libertine who condones child rape and who suffers the indignity of being chased by women who batter him with their shoes.

But as clumsy a piece of agitprop as it is, the film was enough to spark violent mobs in several countries, joining a growing number of incidents in which a perceived insult to Islam has sparked deadly attacks.

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It's a modern phenomenon, the most notorious being the Danish cartoon controversy, which left nearly 150 dead.

"It is very difficult to find parallels, if you go even 10 or 20 years back," said Jamal Badawi, a professor emeritus in the Department of Religious Studies at Saint Mary's University in Halifax. "I'm not aware of something older, at least not as dramatic."

He pointed to modern communications as an aggravating factor. Satellite news and social media mean that, in short order, a perceived insult can be disseminated, a hardline mob roused and the results of their violence broadcast. It's a manifestation of the global village, with Prof. Badawi noting that the inter-connectedness can confuse those who don't grasp Western freedoms.

"Foreigners may not realize governments cannot order films, for example, to stop," he said. "They perceive the attack on the Prophet as an attack on their own identity."

The results can be deadly.

Dutch film-maker Theo van Gogh, a great-grandnephew of the painter Vincent, received death threats after making the provocative 2004 movie Submission, which included showing verses of the Koran written on female bodies. According to his friend and scriptwriter Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the firebrand Somali-born intellectual, he did not take the threats seriously. He was killed while cycling to work, shot eight times by a Dutch-Moroccan who also stabbed and tried to decapitate him.

In 2005, unconfirmed reports that the Koran had been thrown in the toilet at the U.S. detention centre in Guantanamo Bay sparked violent protests. Dozens were killed in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Indonesia, the Middle East and Africa. Newsweek later retracted part of its report and military investigators said that no deliberate desecration had occurred.

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Later that same year, the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published a number of cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed. The incident passed largely unnoticed outside of Denmark, until several local Muslims created a dossier of the cartoons, along with their feelings of hurt and several unrelated images, and circulated the material. The resulting protests in Africa, the Middle East and Afghanistan left 139 dead. The cartoonist lived for years under the protection of police, who shot and wounded a man who burst into the house with an axe and a knife.

In 2010, fringe Florida preacher Terry Jones announced plans to set fire to a Koran on the ninth anniversary of the al-Qaeda attacks on the United States. His plan – which he dubbed "International Burn a Koran Day" – drew widespread condemnation. Only two days before the act he called it off, after protests that left 20 dead in the Middle East and central Asia. He vowed never to burn a Koran but broke his word the following year, joining supporters for a "trial" and "execution" of the book that garnered limited attention and brought a fine for not having a permit.

Earlier this year, the U.S. military decided to burn a large number of religious materials, including Korans. They said these had been written in by prisoners at Bagram air base, in Afghanistan, as a way to pass notes. Only a small amount was burned before an Afghan labourer noticed and doused the flames. But the news caused a mob attack on the base, as well as other protests that left 30 dead. Among those slain were several Americans believed killed in retaliation.

The latest violence was sparked by a film produced by a California resident who calls himself an Israeli Jew. It is back by Mr. Jones, the Florida preacher. The filmmaker who goes by the name Sam Bacile spoke openly to the Associated Press of trying to discredit Islam, calling it a "cancer" and said the $5-million production was funded by 100 Jewish donors. He is now in hiding but denies responsibility for the U.S. ambassador being killed in Libya, saying that his security detail failed.

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