A few days ago, tens of thousands of people gathered in Beirut, Lebanon, for a rare public appearance by Hezbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah, who has made a conscious effort to stay out of the limelight since the Israel-Hezbollah War in 2006. Clad in green and yellow, the colors of Hezbollah, supporters cheered as Nasrallah called for the continued protests against the Youtube film, Innocence of Muslims, “[for] as long as there’s blood in us, we will not remain silent over insults against our prophet.”
Due to freedom of speech, the US cannot stop the spread of this video, and Google refuses to take action even though it has had devastating effects in the Muslim world. The video, which mocks Islam and the Prophet Mohammad, has been banned in several countries. German authorities are debating banning the film in the name of security. A KFC was burned down in Tripoli, a protester was killed in Karachi, a US military base was attacked in Kabul… while there were some peaceful protests, a common theme at violent protests that erupted across the Muslim world was the chanting of “Death to America!”
I’ve heard multiple people here in the States ask, “What’s the big deal? We don’t react like that when people insult Jesus.” Yes, it’s not a big deal. It’s a ridiculous production with awful dubbing and an even worse green screen. But that does not mean that people won’t react to it. This video is malicious and offensive, and people reacted as such. Their reactions might not have been warranted, but that does not change the fact that people can be emotion and may react violently.
Nasrallah has been one of the leading forces behind an anti-American movement in the Middle East. He is using this video to continue to spread his message. It has fueled his fire, and he will continue to inspire people to react for as long as people are willing to listen. Nasrallah is smart. People who don’t believe in Hezbollah’s ideology are now looking at him with admiration for fighting for Islam, all the while respecting other religions (he had planned the protests days after the Pope visited Lebanon.)
No matter the content of his speeches, audiences listen when Nasrallah talks. Many believe what he says, and they act on it. His influence spreads far and wide beyond the borders of Lebanon, even if people don’t agree with everything Hezbollah stands for.
I would argue that public diplomacy practitioners could learn from Nasrallah’s tactics. We are so quick to dismiss his “terrorist propaganda,” yet I wish the US could get the attention Nasrallah gets when he rises to the podium, and I wish the US could get a message across as effectively as he does. Let us study him. What makes him so popular? Why do people respect him, and therefore listen to him? All the efforts the US has made to curb anti-Americanism in the region became irrelevant the moment Innocence of Muslims went viral – so what can the US do to convey to the Muslim people that the video is not a representation of the American viewpoint? And how do we fix this situation?