Rejecting the Spark-and-Fire Metaphor

Writing in City Journal, Jens-Martin Eriksen and Frederik Stjernfelt discuss the parallels between the recent violence and protests regarding the anti-Islam film The Innocence of Muslims and the Danish cartoon controversy six years ago:

In the current Mohammed film crisis, certain patterns repeat themselves from the crisis over the Danish cartoons six years ago. In both cases, Middle East Islamists seized on a marginal piece of anti-Islam criticism to put pressure on the West—and on more moderate forces in their own countries.

The Western reaction is also familiar, particularly in its understanding of the Middle East as a bonfire waiting to happen and criticism of Islam as the spark that ignites it. Descriptions of the YouTube film (a trailer, actually) that “sparked protests in many Muslim countries”—as the New Yorker put it in a typical formulation—rely on this false metaphor. It suggests that the protests are spontaneous occurrences that would not have come about without such a spark, and that the demonstrating Muslims are primitive savages governed by passion, not responsible for their own actions. The only parties with control over their actions are the filmmakers.

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