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Olivier Roy: Violence Is Simply Politics, Not A Clash Of Civilizations

Olivier Roy: "The story that there is no representation of the Prophet in Islam just doesn't exist; it's a modern invention."
As the Muslim world continues to react, sometimes violently, to a film, "The Innocence of Muslims," that portrays the Prophet Muhammad in a negative light, observers are weighing in on the reasons behind Muslim anger.

One is Olivier Roy, a French scholar who has written extensively on Islam and the politics of the Middle East and Central Asia. In an interview with RFE/RL correspondent Frud Bezhan, Roy argues that the violence is not driven by a clash of civilizations, but rather by regional politics.

RFE/RL: Why has "The Innocence of Muslims," the low-budget film that satirizes the Prophet Muhammad and Islam, caused so much violent outrage? Is there a historical, religious, or political explanation as to why defamation of religion in the Muslim world often leads to violence, as opposed to other regions and religions?

Olivier Roy:
The issue is not Islam; the issue is political agenda. What we have now in the Middle East is a sort of triangle. We have the Arab Spring, the Salafist movement [which advocates violent jihad and a strict interpretation of Islam], and the pro-Iranian coalition.

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Both the Salafists and the Iranians are trying to make use of anything that could turn the Arab streets against the West and to undermine both the Arab Spring and to undermine the conservative Sunni coalition, which is against Iran. We have a Sunni coalition with Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt, and the Gulf states which strongly opposes the Iranian interference in the Middle East. This coalition has the same interests, which is to prevent Iran from having a nuclear bomb. So, the Iranians are trying to split this coalition by calling on the Arab streets to fight against their governments.

It is not a matter of clash of civilizations or this stupid stuff; it's politics.

RFE/RL: Why is freedom of expression -- in the form of films, books, and art that are critical of Islam -- not tolerated in the Muslim world?

It depends on the countries themselves. You can do that in Turkey, for example, but it's a bit difficult to do that in Egypt. Once again, it has to do with politics.

When the government is looking for the support of the Salafists, of course there is a problem with criticism. But when the government is neutral or democratic, there is no such problem. So now the issue is to see to which extent democratization will give way to free speech. We have a coalition of Salafists and conservatives who are opposed to both free speech and democratization. So it's once again linked to the present evolution in the Muslim world.

Thinkers, Experts Weigh In On Islam Film Controversy
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(WATCH: Thinkers, experts weigh in on Islam film controversy.)

RFE/RL: You have said that some controversial publications and artworks have not attracted the same outrage as this film. What has made this controversy so explosive?

It depends what they do. You cannot speak of "The Innocence of Muslims" as art. It's not a piece of art; it's just bullshit. So, there's a big difference between -- let's say Salman Rushdie, a real writer and artist -- and "The Innocence of Muslims."

So, I think that there have been criticisms and critical pieces of art, which didn't [lead to] anything. The problem is when it's politically manipulated by Muslims or the Christian right. So, it's largely a matter of political manipulation.

RFE/RL: Some commentators have suggested that the violence over the film illustrates wider anti-Western sentiment in the Muslim world. What kind of role have local grievances against the West, and in particular against the United States, played in the violent demonstrations?

The protests have been carried out by [only] a small minority. [For example,] you have 2,000 Salafists in Tunisia and you have 190 in Paris. So, it's politically motivated. It's simply politics. If the Muslim world were against the West, you would have millions of people on the streets, but now you only have thousands of people on the streets. So it's a way to present an elliptical illusion.

RFE/RL: What kind of role have extremist Islamic circles played in the violence over the film? Has there been a divided response in the Muslim world toward the controversy?

You have Salafist Islam, liberal Islam, conservative Islam; you have what you want. So the issue is not Islam; the issue is which kind and which ideology. You have Salafists and the Islamists. The Islamists are changing now because 20 years ago it would have been they who would have gone to the streets, but now it's the Salafists.

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The problem for the Islamists in the Middle East is that they now have to take a position: whether they side with the Salafists or they clash with them. Of course, they are trying to avoid making a choice. It's clear in Tunisia that they are divided. Some people of the Ennahda [Tunisian Islamist party that came to power after elections last year] don't want to clash with the Salafists and others say it's time to send the police and the army. The same thing is happening in Libya and Egypt. The Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt already sent the army against the jihadists.

RFE/RL: Some political commentators and Islamic scholars have suggested that depictions of the Prophet Muhammad are against the spirit of Islam. Is this correct?

It's an interpretation. In history, you have had a lot of pictures of Prophet Muhammad. It's not true that there is a general ban on pictures of Muhammad. It's a Salafist view and now the Salafist view is dominant. But if you look at miniatures in the Middle Ages, you had a lot of representations of the Prophet. The story that there is no representation of the Prophet in Islam just doesn't exist; it's a modern invention.

You can find a huge iconography of Muslim representations of the Prophet, including in Pakistan, by the way. Until the 1960s, you could buy a picture of Muhammad in the shops in Pakistan. It's only a recent kind of Salafist interpretation.

RFE/RL: There have been violent protests across Afghanistan over the film. You say this is a relatively new phenomenon in the country. What has changed in Afghan society that perceived Western insults can often result in violence?

I think in Afghanistan, we have a huge crisis of identity. Nationalism has been undermined by the ethnic divides and the country has been at civil war for more than 30 years. So this kind of emotional relationship to Islam -- [compared to] an abstract version of Islam that traditionally [defines] Afghan Islam -- is a way to tie an identity.

It's also to oppose Western troops, whose status is very ambiguous in the eyes of the Afghans. On the one hand, they came to the defense of Afghanistan. But on the other, they are occupation troops.

So, Islam is here, in a sense, precisely to depoliticize the situation and to avoid thinking in real political terms and in ethnic terms, which is the key issue in Afghanistan.