Demonstrations continue across the middle East.  In my last post, I observed that this is a complex and layered story.

Most attention has been paid to two of these layers: the geopolitical/strategic questions of evolving relations between the region and the West; and the implications in the area of expression, specifically a perceived conflict between freedom of expression and the notion of blasphemy.

As I said last time, this whole story has deep roots in international relations in the region.  Many of these countries are just emerging from decades of repression, and newly-freed public spheres are being used to say something about the complicity of the West in that repression, and about long-standing feelings in the Muslim world that its voice has been muffled by dominant powers beyond.

One the level of geopolitics, then, this may not really be about a video clip or about religion per se.  But on another–let’s call it the “symbolic” level, it is very much about these things because it is about a symbolic struggle over symbols, and which are in ascendency and which are not and which are to be respected and which not and which are being shamed and which not.

This symbolic register is where religion and media come together.  Religion is all about symbols, and the media are the frame or context where “the symbolic” happens.  They are also the context where discourses about norms, values, ideas, and the sacred and profane are worked out.

The challenge is to find a context for discourse about this symbolic struggle/struggle over symbols (it is both). Two recent conversations on that turf caught my eye here in London.  In yesterday’s Guardian, a very thoughtful piece by Mona Eltahawy (who was a guest of our Center during our Conference on Islam and the Media) and today a very fine–and a bit disturbing–piece by Yasmin Alibahai-Brown in the Independent.

We can address other aspects of this situation using other means, but we’ll not make much progress in understanding until we can find a way to address the symbolic nature of this crisis.