AT one level, much of the furore over the somewhat elliptically titled film Innocence of Muslims could be described as predictable. After all, we have seen it before.
Coincidentally, it comes at a time when The Satanic Verses is back in the news because of Salman Rushdie’s memoir about the personal consequences entailed by Ayatollah Khomeini’s infamous fatwa. The reaction to it was perhaps the first instance in living memory of globalised protests against a controversial literary text that many Muslims deemed blasphemous.
Rushdie, who remained in hiding for a decade under the protection of the British state, has, gratifyingly, lived to tell the tale. But numerous people — translators, publishers, even a pair of Belgium-based imams — were killed over that novel. Iran effectively rescinded the fatwa eventually, but it is sobering to note that an independent Iranian organisation has lately increased its bounty on the writer’s head by half a million dollars.
The sordid saga of the Danish cartoons, rescued from the obscurity they deserved by some Europe-based mullahs intent on making trouble, is even fresher in the collective memory.
In the case of the present provocation, there is an added frisson on account of the so-called Arab Spring. A great many Libyans are upset about the death of the US ambassador and three other Americans in Benghazi last week, and the authorities in Tripoli seem duly embarrassed. The irony, of course, is that the incidents that resulted in the fatalities occurred in a nation that Nato forces ‘liberated’ last year, and that too in a city celebrated as the cradle of the revolt against Muammar Qadhafi’s dictatorship.
It is perhaps pertinent to recall that at least one Nato general was honest enough to note at the start of the intervention that some of the forces the West was assisting in Libya were precisely the sort of forces it was combating in Afghanistan. What’s more, no lessons have been learned. The same mistake is being repeated in Syria.
It’s unclear from the available evidence whether the ambassador, Christopher Stevens — remembered by friends and acquaintances as a genial State Department Arabist — was deliberately targeted. The attack on the US consulate in Benghazi has been attributed to a group called Ansar al-Sharia, and it has been suggested that the violence on the anniversary of Sept 11 had little to do with the offending film: rather, it ought to be perceived in the context of the struggle for ascendancy within Libya.
Similar claims have been aired about the protests in Egypt, whose president has been accused of tardiness in condemning the violence and vowing to protect foreign missions. In Sudan, it is not just the US embassy that has attracted protesters but also the British and German missions.
Of course, the latter two governments have no more to do with the offending film than the US authorities. It is almost certainly the case that the protests across the Muslim world are in some part an excuse for venting anti-American — and, more broadly, anti-Western — sentiments. They are a sorry excuse. There are plenty of reasons to be appalled by US actions and manoeuvres in any number of Muslim countries. Innocence of Muslims should not figure among them.
The film was clearly intended as an Islamophobia-inducing provocation. The sensible approach would have been to ignore it completely. Judging by the 14-minute ‘trailer’ on YouTube, it has no artistic merit whatsoever.
What’s more, the cast and crew were apparently unaware of its intended purpose. They were told it was a depiction of Egypt 2,000 years ago. The anti-Islamic aspects of the dialogue were dubbed afterwards, as a canny American blogger, Sarah Abdurrahman, was among the first to cotton on.
Perhaps equally insidious has been the effort to portray it as an Israeli-funded venture. It was purportedly the brainchild of ‘Sam Bacile’, a Jewish real estate agent in the US, who claimed in interviews that the funds came from Israeli businessmen. This has turned out to be one of the many myths perpetrated by petty criminal Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, a California-based American of Coptic Christian origin, who used the pseudonym ‘Sam Bacile’ to conceal his real identity, and who has thrived on publicity from a couple of fundamentalist Christian confederates.
It is useful to remember, in this context, that some fundamentalist Christians in the US support Israel unreservedly solely in the interests of hastening Armageddon. It wouldn’t be much of a stretch to conjecture that Innocence of Muslims is a consequence of that mindset.
What’s not surprising is that some Islamists are willing to match the Islamophobes, absurdity for absurdity. Excerpts from the film apparently failed to excite much of a response after it was posted on YouTube last month, until it was dubbed into Arabic and a handful of Egyptians picked up on it, going to the extent of broadcasting bits of it on a private evangelical channel.
The very idea that a film such as this can in any way dent the faith of Muslims does not bear serious scrutiny. But then, one cannot fail to recognise that the idiocy of Islamophobes easily finds echoes in the Muslim world. It is unlikely that Nakoula sought to elicit the sort of reaction witnessed in Benghazi, but there can be little doubt he did seek to provoke a response. And he got what he wanted. It would undoubtedly have been infinitely wiser to deny him this satisfaction. But it’s too late for that.
Perhaps the most bizarre response to recent events came from Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney, who accused the Obama administration of pandering to Islamist sentiments. Romney has rightfully been taken to task for that ridiculous insinuation. It is nonetheless interesting to imagine, though, what Washington’s response would have been had the events in Benghazi taken place in Islamabad, Tehran, Damascus or Kabul.