Some political events are volcanic; others are like a slow-burning fuse.
US President Donald Trump’s decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital is a political volcano but days earlier he lit an interfaith cultural fuse by retweeting three anti-Muslim videos originally posted by a fringe far-right British group.
One of the three videos merits particular attention because it appears to assert the inherent incompatibility between Islam and Christianity.
The second of the video series tweeted by the Britain First group’s Jayda Fransen is frozen on the image of a heavyset man holding a demurely white-gowned, blue-cloaked statue. A single sentence, presumably appended by Fransen, offers a stark indication of the content: “Muslim Destroys a Statue of the Virgin Mary!” Even those who do not click to play the video will get the gut-wrenching message.
The New York Times, which examined the video, said it is 4 years old and the man is an extremist Syrian cleric, Abo Omar Ghabra.
Ghabra’s actions fit a pattern set by the Taliban’s dynamiting of the monumental Buddahs of Bamiyan in 2001 and other conspicuous attempts by Muslim extremist groups to destroy representational art.
The more dangerous message sought to be conveyed by the video and its wide dissemination by Trump is the implacable hostility between Islam and Christianity. The video is meant to intensify the struggle between the iconoclastic upstart faith founded by Prophet Mohammad in seventh-century Arabia and the older religion that shaped Western civilisation.
How? There is a great and terrible power in seeing a bearded, apparently Muslim man carelessly, even triumphantly smashing an icon of the Christian faith. It is even more disturbing that he is seen destroying a symbol of female virtue, an inspirational figure for Christians across the world.
Some might say the video and its retweeting are a slightly more spiritual version of the inflammatory cover featured by a mass-market, politically conservative Polish magazine in February 2016. That didn’t get as much attention or traction as this video. (Trump didn’t retweet it and he was still considered a bizarre, improbable presidential candidate.)
Even so, as this columnist noted in this newspaper at the time, the wSieci magazine cover sent a dangerous and powerful message at the height of European concerns over the influx of Muslim refugee men. It bore the words “The Islamic Rape of Europe” and showed a white woman wrapped in the European Union’s blue flag, her mouth open in a Munch-like scream while three pairs of dark-skinned male hands pull at her hair, clothes, waist and arms.
Both the magazine and the retweeted video have the same subtext: the threat of Muslim sexual dominance over the Christian West. But Trump’s second retweeted video also taps into something else. It reinforces the expectation of a decisive coming struggle between Islam and Christianity.
Trump’s former chief strategist at the White House, Stephen Bannon, is known to think along these lines. In 2014, he delivered a Skype address to a Vatican conference hosted by conservative Catholic group the Institute for Human Dignity. He declared that the impending conflict needed all Christians to join together as a new “church militant.” That was the only way, Bannon said, to “fight for our beliefs against this new barbarity that’s starting.”
The video retweeted by Trump is supposed to illustrate that “barbarity.” For, to smash a statue revered by another elicits a visceral reaction.
The retweeted video certainly does convey a dangerous threat, albeit at the level of a provincial cleric in northern Syria. The video tries to portray such behaviour as an article of the Islamic faith when it is anything but. Practices such as Ghabra’s are not condoned by stories about the Prophet’s own actions.
When he entered the pre-Islamic pagan shrine Kaaba in Mecca, the Prophet is said to have destroyed all the images of gods but allowed a painting of the Virgin and infant Jesus to remain. There are varying accounts of how he protected that painting. Some say he covered it with his hands; others that he directed it to be left intact.
The painting perished when a fire destroyed the building in 683, barely half a century after it was saved.
That story offers not just a wholesome but a holistic perspective of the Muslim faith’s approach to other people’s icons.
From tragedy to sordid farce, terrorism is metamorphosing before our eyes. Until recently, an attack was meant to serve brutal, if basic, functions. These included terrifying a city or a country and serving as a propaganda vehicle for the terrorists’ political, social or cultural agenda. Now, the terrorist attack may be mutating into a speculative investment for monetary gain. The implications are worth considering.
On April 11, three bomb blasts hit a bus carrying popular German football team Borussia Dortmund to an important match. Three letters at the scene led officials to focus the investigation on two suspects “from the Islamist spectrum.”
A Borussia Dortmund player and an escorting policeman were injured; the match was rescheduled and eventually played under massive security precautions. Another football match in Munich was also subject to heightened security.
The sequence of events was greeted with anxiety and trepidation by fans and well-wishers of Borussia Dortmund, one of Germany’s most successful football clubs. Many wondered if terrorists would increasingly target sports entities and venues across Europe, a continent divided by much but united by the language of football.
After all, targets have generally been chosen for being vulnerable or symbolically significant. An adored football team is right up there with the Bataclan, the Nice beach, the Berlin Christmas market and the British Parliament. Then, with the arrest of a German-Russian man only identified as Sergej W., an extraordinary truth emerged.
The dual-national had audaciously sought to make money off the attack on Borussia Dortmund. He had faked the incident to appear like a terrorist attack, which is to say an act of violence that could cause mass injury, loss of life and considerable damage to property, followed by confusion and a claimed connection to radical Islamists.
On the day of the attack, Sergej W. purchased several options in Borussia Dortmund stock, betting heavily on a fall in its share price. The coincidence of share options purchases on the same day as the bomb blasts led police to Sergej W. and his cynical game plan was revealed.
As it happened, he didn’t briefly benefit monetarily either. “A significant share price drop could have been expected if a player had been seriously injured or even killed as a result of the attack,” prosecutors said. Neither of those events came to pass.
Surely this case, with its bizarre motivation and outrageous fakery, should merit no more than a shrug and a platitude? Something along the lines of “truth is stranger than fiction” should do nicely before everyone — police, press and public — returns to contemplating the real terrorist threats that menace Europe.
On the contrary. The faked terrorist attack is a dangerous development. A petty crook notes the knee-jerk way in which we respond to terrorist attacks today and calculates that it will be easy to misdirect the police towards unspecified Islamist troublemakers. This raises the possibility of people committing crimes of passion or for profit and laying out a false trail of clues that point to jihadist involvement. Even worse, the Islamic State or whichever jihadist group is implicated from afar may opportunistically claim responsibility.
Even if, as happened with Sergej W., the perpetrator is unmasked, clues that point to radical extremists will waste police resources and spread considerable panic. There is always the possibility that a faked terrorist attack might be seen as the real thing.
The implications are disturbing.