Writing from London, I’m following the events in Egypt, Libya, and Yemen.  Surely, there is much more to these events than an obscure Islamophobic video.  But, nonetheless, the existence of this cryptic attempt at incitement continues to figure in events.  I think it is important to note the dimensions of this situation that are rooted in interactions between the once separate spheres of “religion” and “the media.”  One simply can’t understand events like these without thinking about the ways that religions are mediated and the ways that the media are infused with religion today.

First, it is no longer possible to have a “private conversation.”  Religious discourse used to take place in relatively bounded contexts.  There could be conversations “inside” that were kept from those “outside.”  And conversations today transcend vast geographic spaces.  This was true of the so-called “cartoon controversy” six years ago.  The video fragment that keeps getting mentioned in discussions of today’s events might once have only been seen close to home.  Now it can be uploaded, subtitled, and circulated to precisely those places where it would cause the most offense.  In fact, that seems to have been the thinly-veiled intention all along.

This leads to a second point, that today’s digital technology has substantially lowered the barriers to production and distribution of visual material.  Something can be made on the very cheap and quickly circulated. 

Third, digital technology also means that anyone can be a producer or distributor.  What we in the West might think of as amateurish production values nonetheless can be coded as a “film” in commentary and reaction to it elsewhere.  Further, in the countries where these events are taking place, until recently no production, no matter how trivial, would have gotten made or distributed without governmental approval or involvement. So this video can achieve the status of “film” (even though there is apparently only a “trailer” available) and people in the region can assume it was produced with tacit or direct support of the US government or someone in power somewhere.

This relates to the fourth point, that the media frame is now the definitive frame for legitimation in public discourse globally, and projection of images into that frame is now a central condition of power, cultural ascendancy, and identity politics.  Islam’s representation in that frame matters.

This leads to the fifth point–the particular problem of the mediation of religion.  Religions vary in their understanding of mediation and appropriate kinds and methods of mediation. Islam is widely known to possess a particular sensibility and sensitivity about realist depiction.  Metaphor is fine, natural imagery is fine, but religion  is diminished when it or its history are depicted.  Thus, the mediation of religion today, when mediation is at the center of global interactions, is of fundamental import.

Sixth, contemporary practices of mediation and circulation carry with them the imprimatur of empowerment.  The broad circulation of cultural materials and the exposure and framing of cultural institutions globally mean that we are encouraged to think of ourselves as involved, even complicit, in these interactions.  What were once merely audiences are today more active the making of meanings, and their reactions to circulated meanings are also quite different than in the past.