How Has Southeast Asia Reacted to the “Innocence of Muslims” Film?
Editor’s Note: This piece originally appeared in “The Diplomat” and can be read here.
Over the last few days, the world has witnessed uproar in more than 20 countries over video clips from “Innocence of Muslims”, a U.S.-made anti-Muslim film ridiculing the Prophet Muhammad, including assaults on several U.S. embassies which have left a top American diplomat dead. While the outrage over the film has not thus far been as fierce in Southeast Asia as it has been in the Middle East, the governments in the two large Muslim-majority countries – Malaysia and Indonesia – have nonetheless moved swiftly to try to contain any potential violence.
In Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country, the reaction to the clip was critical but not radical. On September 13, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s spokesman for international affairs, Teuku Faizasyah, said Yudhoyono denounced the movie for “the element of blasphemy” but also because it had resulted in the loss of lives which he truly regretted. Indonesia’s National Ulema Council (MUI) also explicitly asked all Indonesians to show restraint and not overreact to the film through violent protests. Hundreds of members of the Indonesian Muslim group Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI) did stage a protest in front of the U.S. embassy on Friday, but it was largely peaceful. The embassy compound was also heavily guarded by around 400 Indonesian policemen, including dozens in riot gear.
Even though the reaction was mostly non-violent, the government nevertheless demanded as early as September 13 that YouTube block access to the film. Communications and Information Ministry spokesman Gatot Dewa Broto said the “offensive” film had clearly upset Indonesian Muslims and the government did not want “violence to break out here.” Google emailed the government that evening to announce that it had blocked Indonesian access to 16-related URLs on their site, according to an article in The Australian. Film extracts were still available on YouTube on Sunday, but Broto said “a special effort” was being made to restrict access. Jakarta has also written separately to Blackberry maker Research in Motion (RIM) to filter the videos on smartphones, and has found it to be “very cooperative.” Indonesia is RIM’s biggest market outside North America, which gives the company strong incentive to oblige Jakarta’s request.
In neighboring Malaysia, reactions have been similarly muted relative to the Middle East, and leaders have also focused on criticizing the film’s narrative while discouraging overreaction. Prime Minister Najib Razak refuted the movie’s narrative that “all Muslims are extremists”, while Foreign Minister Anifah Aman said the producers should rectify the situation for the sake of peace. Home Minister Hishammuddin Hussein also cautioned Malaysians to “be rational but firm and not over emotional to the point national security is threatened.” Other political parties have also chimed in, with all actors fixed on upcoming general elections which must be held before April next year. Anwar Ibrahim, the leader of the opposition, urged the U.S. to “hold to account” the individuals responsible, but also unequivocally condemned “the senseless killing” that had taken place. The spiritual leader of the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) Nik Aziz Nik Mat meanwhile labeled the film producers crazy and urged the authorities to take firm action. While some of these statements have been critical, there has been little sign yet of any visceral one-upmanship among parties in a bid to score political points on the issue which could radicalize the reaction further.
In terms of protests, Agence France-Presse reported several in different parts of the country on Friday, ranging from the northern city of Ipoh to Batu Caves, a popular tourist location outside the country’s capital Kuala Lumpur. However, no violence was reported. A group of around 30 people from Islamic organizations did march to the U.S. embassy to hand-deliver a request for the U.S. to take the clip off YouTube, but the demonstration was peaceful and the protesters clarified that they condemned the violence in the Middle East that had led to the death of several Americans.
Nonetheless, the government appears to be taking no chances and has wasted no time in following suit in clamping down. On Saturday, Malaysia’s Information, Communications and Culture Minister Rais Yatim revealed he had instructed the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission to “ban the access of the movie trailer via YouTube and other channels,” and that the ban should serve “as a warning” to local and foreign parties that the government will not tolerate “negative elements touching upon racial and religious sensitivities.” And on Sunday, the Associated Press quoted Rais as saying that Kuala Lumpur had officially asked Google to block access to the video clip, citing “explosive commotions and repercussions at hand.” While such radical reactions have been mostly absent so far in both Malaysia and Indonesia, the governments in both countries seem determined to act preemptively to ensure the violence in the Middle East does not spread to Southeast Asia.