Here we go again. A preposterous provocation easily manages to ignite fevered protests in Muslim-majority countries around the world, and everyone is worse off as a result. The episode is playing like a sequel to the 2005 Danish cartoon controversy, but with bigger and better explosions than the original.
The provocation this time is The Innocence of Muslims, an amateurish 14-minute video with the production quality of a cable-access show from the 1980s. A schlocky piece of derision, it resembles a pornographic version of The Ten Commandments spliced together with reruns of The A-Team. And it does not even make much sense. The lead actor playing Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, looks as if Colin Farrell and Forrest Gump had a baby and groomed him to look like Jesus. The whole 14 minutes, supposedly the trailer for a longer film, is so painfully bad and so archly stupid that watching it ought to qualify as an enhanced interrogation technique.
And if the video itself is not strange enough, the story surrounding it is weirder. The director may or may not be Alan Roberts, who directed such memorable classics as The Happy Hooker Goes Hollywood, and the actors claim to have been duped. Now distancing themselves from the project, they explained in a press release that they simply responded to a casting call on Craigslist, that high-water mark of the Hollywood acting establishment (and the “casual encounters” genre), which said they were to act in an innocuous trifle called Desert Warriors, produced by the production company Media for Christ. The most blasphemous lines were clumsily dubbed in afterwards. The producer of the video, a Coptic Egyptian-American named Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, initially claimed to be “an Israeli American” named Sam Bacile who said he had secured $5 million of funding for a full-length film from “100 Jewish investors,” throwing some good old anti-Semitism into the Islamophobic fire. Nakoula, it turns out, is not just an Islamophobe and anti-Semite but also a felon, convicted of bank fraud in 2009 and placed on probation for five years. Before that, he had been arrested on charges of making PCP, otherwise known as angel dust. The video, posted months ago on YouTube, only drew attention when the Islamophobic Coptic American activist Morris Sadek e-mailed hundreds of journalists and associates a link to the video (and posted it on his website) in connection to an “International Judge Muhammad Day” organized by Pastor Terry Jones, of burn-a-copy-of-the-Qur’an infamy. This nexus should come as no surprise. The Islamophobic right in the United States is closely tied to the far-right fringes of the evangelical Christian community. Jones’ event, incidentally, was scheduled for September 11, 2012.
The rest of the story is equally stupid, but more tragic. Demonstrators in Cairo scale the US Embassy walls and replace the flag with their own, and violence in Libya claims the life of the American ambassador and three others. Protests escalate, now in about 20 countries around the world, and more lives are lost. In the United States, where protests do not erupt, the events are nonetheless framed as one would expect, within a narrative about politically immature Muslims who are forever intolerant of solemn Western values. “Such intolerance,” writes ex-Muslim Ayaan Hirsi Ali in her Newsweek cover story, “is the defining characteristic of Islam.” And so we come full circle. Islamophobes provoke. Too many Muslims respond. Non-Muslims believe Muslims are crazy. Muslims are told the West hates them, and the Islamophobic right sleeps well at night with their cozy dreams of a mission accomplished.
But before we jump, as the pundits would have us do, to conclusions about the inexorability of the clash of civilizations, before we breezily proclaim the end of the Arab awakening (a generational shift that will take years to settle into stability), and before we decide that Arabs prefer or deserve death over liberty, we should pause to think about the idiotic nature of this entire fiasco and decide if we want really want right-wing lunacy, from West and East, to determine the direction of global politics.
In fact, the better lens through which to view the tumult over this doltish movie is not the Danish cartoon conflagration but the manufactured controversy over the “Ground Zero mosque,” an Islamic cultural center originally slated to be built two blocks from the former site of the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan. Back in 2010, and months after plans for the center had been announced, the anti-Muslim blogger Pamela Geller stoked enough outrage on the fringes of the right wing to push the story onto the airwaves of Fox News. In its typical fashion, Fox News lent legitimacy to bogus claims — in this case, that the proposed cultural center would be a mosque and would be at Ground Zero, neither of which was true — and trampled on the rest of the media for not picking up the story. Soon enough, the rest of the media followed suit. Imam Faisal Abdul Rauf, the man behind the proposed center, was quickly transformed into a covert cultural jihadist. The center itself was seen as a symbol of Islamic domination, and Newt Gingrich dutifully equated Muslims to Nazis.
The degree to which the far right can set the news agenda and establish the political tenor of domestic debates is frightening. This phenomenon has a name: “the Fox effect,” a term coined by David Brock and Ari Rabin-Havt in their book The Fox Effect: How Roger Ailes Turned a Network Into a Propaganda Machine. But in the case of The Innocence of Muslims, the role of Fox News is not played by Ailes’ cable outlet. That distinction belongs instead to an Egyptian television channel called al-Nas, which caters to the arch-conservative, literal-minded current in Islam known as the salafi trend. The inflammatory right wing in this story is not just American, but international.
The video first made it onto Egyptian airwaves on September 8, 2012, when Sheikh Khalid ‘Abdallah, known for whipping up sectarian tensions, screened parts of it on his al-Nas program and called for protests. On September 11, thousands showed up at the US embassy, including a strong representation of salafis and bunches of ultras, hard-core sports fans who are politically far away from the salafis but who carry a sharpened grudge against Egyptian security forces after 74 fans were killed at the Port Said stadium in February. One of ‘Abdallah’s recurrent themes is that Coptic Christians, diaspora Copts in particular, goad the West into prying open the Egyptian Muslim body politic for intervention. The Innocence of Muslims offers him Exhibit A for his argument with an opening scene that depicts bearded salafis ransacking a Coptic clinic and a Coptic father explaining the assault to his daughter by hearkening back to the earliest days of Islam. Cue the stream of insults to Muhammad in the “historical” scenes that follow. The implication is not only that Muslims bear collective guilt for the church burnings and other sectarian attacks that occur in Egypt, but also that they are innately bigoted and violent. It is precisely what the likes of ‘Abdallah want their followers to think Westerners (and Copts) believe about Islam. The stakes of this confrontation are debated repeatedly as Egyptians discuss the formation of their post-revolutionary “civil state.” The demonstrations in Egypt, in other words, may speak the words of civilizational conflict but what they really reflect are the complicated dynamics of national politics. The same thing can be said of Libya, Yemen, Lebanon or Syria, in fact, of every place where we have seen protests.
Yet, unlike the “Ground Zero mosque” controversy, what is happening now combines the fulminations of the American far right with the salafi news media that takes their bait. In this case, the two may be doctrinal and political opposites, but their attraction to each other is nonetheless magnetic. Both are interested in fanning the civilizational fires that have been burning for at least the last 11 years, and smoldering for much longer. And with today’s technology, it has become child’s play — and will only get easier — to produce and distribute bilious speech that can and will have deadly consequences. The Islamophobes in the United States and the ultra-religious right in Muslim-majority countries need each other to survive. Each confirms to the other the need for his own existence. To the Islamophobes, all Muslims are extremists. The provocations Islamophobes produce are designed to elicit the very images we see. To the Muslim far right, all Westerners harbor a deep-seated anti-Islamic sentiment and the anti-Muslim provocations supply ample evidence of the inner, hateful workings of the Western mind.
Left out is the vast middle, hundreds of millions of people who neither seek out nor desire a clash of civilizations. And to those who ask where are the Muslims demonstrating in the tens of thousands against this anti-American delirium, one could also ask where are the demonstrations among Christian evangelical circles against these hate-filled productions? In fact, we need desperately to move beyond such feeble-minded “where are the [fill in the blank]” sloganeering. What we need to understand instead are the distinctions that make up politics. When Egyptian President Muhammad Mursi calls upon the US political establishment to prosecute the filmmaker, he is doing so to outflank his own right wing on this latest front of the Egyptian culture wars. And culture wars, in Egypt or the United States, are largely diversions from the real and difficult issues of the day, by which Egypt is beset on many sides. Similarly, when President Barack Obama claims that Egypt is not “an ally, but we don’t consider them an enemy,” he was not only scolding, in typical imperial fashion, his Egyptian counterpart the way a parent scolds a child. He was also signaling to the American public that he can outdo his campaign rival Mitt Romney in talking down to ungrateful vassals.
There are, of course, plenty of legitimate grievances in the Middle East with regard to US foreign policy, and Obama’s statement that “there is never any justification for violence” rings hollow, particularly when one recalls that, according to administration officials, Obama’s policy for drone attacks in the “war on terror” is that “all military-age males in a strike zone [count] as combatants unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent,” as reported by the New York Times on May 29. Moreover, the fact that there have been ongoing revolutions and reformations in several key Arab countries does not simply erase decades of US complicity with dictators and the continued US support for other repressive regimes in the region. And anti-Muslim sentiment continues to rise around the world and is largely ignored by political leaders in the West, leading many Muslims around the world to conclude that their lives and issues are considered less worthy by Westerners and that “Western values” are in practice ways to delegitimize Muslims concerns. But even if that were the case, Muslim leaders everywhere do their causes no favors when they seethe at every brickbat thrown their way.
What is true is that publics in Muslim-majority countries around the world would be well served to learn more about how American civil society operates. And it would be in the interest of Western publics to understand the many complexities and contradictions of Muslim-majority societies around the world so they can understand who exactly is protesting and why. In other words, what is really driving the current explosion is not really wounded religious sensibilities, or cultures of complaint, or atavistic Islamic rage. It is politics. And it is often a local politics of jockeying for power through mobilization of a religious base, whether in the United States or in Muslim-majority counties. The problem is that if you do not know the politics of the Muslim-majority countries involved, all you see are the screaming beards.
In the meantime, the only award for this terrible show goes to Alan Roberts, who, as the putative director of this insipid little video, has managed not just to direct his own actors but thousands of people around the world to act, and to act very badly indeed.
CORRECTION: Due to an editor’s error, the first version of this article placed the planned Islamic cultural center in lower Manhattan seven blocks away from Ground Zero. The proposed location was two blocks away. We regret the error.