By Mark Gabrish Conlan
September 21, 2012 (San Diego)--I probably could have gone through my life blissfully unaware of the existence of a scrap of film called Innocence of Muslims — a.k.a. Innocence of Bin Laden, a.k.a. Desert Warriors — if the U.S. ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens, and three other U.S. Embassy staff members hadn’t been killed in an attack allegedly inspired by a YouTube trailer for this movie. It’s a film almost no one has seen — and that includes the attackers in Libya and the mobs who stormed the U.S. Embassy in Egypt — but that hasn’t stopped either the protesters against the film or the mystery people who made it, who appear to be members of the Copts, an Egyptian Christian sect who lost their protector when Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was driven from power and now fear both official discrimination and private retribution.
This isn’t the first time the values of the U.S. and Western civilization in general — freedom of religion, freedom of speech and press, individual liberty and mutual tolerance — have run headlong into the values of the Muslim world: deference to authority and submission to the will of God as communicated by his Prophet. (The name Islam comes from the Arabic word for “submission.”) Though controversial writer Samuel Huntington vastly overstated the existence of a “clash of civilizations” between the West and the Muslim world, the repeated attacks by militant Muslims against Western works that allegedly denigrate or ridicule their religion indicate not only that the “clash of civilizations” is real but that the Muslims who stage these protests mean to suppress any negative depictions of their religion, not just in their home countries but in the West as well.
In 1977 producer-director Moustapha Akkad released a film called Muhammad: Messenger of God, which, like Innocence of Muslims, purported to be a biopic of Muhammad. Unlike the makers of Innocence of Muslims, the Syrian-born Akkad was a Muslim himself and his intent in making the movie was to explain his religion to Western audiences and get them to view it more sympathetically. “Being a Muslim myself who lived in the West,” Akkad said, “I felt that it was my obligation, my duty, to tell the truth about Islam.” Also unlike the makers of Innocence of Muslims, Akkad obeyed the Islamic commandment that Muhammad must not be visually depicted — even though that made for an awkward movie in which the title character was never seen on screen and the star that was visible, Anthony Quinn, actually played Muhammad’s warrior uncle, Hamza.
If Akkad’s intention in making his movie was building understanding of Islam in the West, it backfired big-time. Not only did Akkad have trouble finding locations for his film — the Saudi Arabian government refused him permission to shoot there and he had to move the production first to Morocco and then to Libya — but when it came out the theatre in London that showed it received bomb threats, the British Board of Film Censors ordered him to change the title to The Message (the title you’ll find it under today if you search for it online), and a group of militant U.S.-born Hanafi Muslims staged a terrorist attack on the Washington, D.C. headquarters of B’nai B’rith, took over 100 hostages and demanded that the U.S. premiere of the film be cancelled. Akkad himself was killed by Muslim terrorists in Jordan in 2005, though his death seems to have been just a case of being in the wrong place (the lobby of the Grand Hyatt in Amman) at the wrong time rather than being targeted for his by then long-forgotten movie.
In 1988, Indian-born British novelist Salman Rushdie published a book called The Satanic Verses, inspired by a legend associated with the founding of Islam that claimed that one of Muhammad’s prophecies had been given to him not by God but the Devil — and that Muhammad had found this out and almost instantly recanted it. Rushdie, according to his own account (published in the September 17, 2012 issue of The New Yorker), didn’t mean The Satanic Verses as an attack on Muhammad. “If the incident of the ‘Satanic Verses’ was the Temptation of Muhammad, it has to be said that he came out of it pretty well,” Rushdie wrote. “He both confessed to having been tempted and repudiated that temptation.”
Nonetheless, such subtleties were lost on Muslim extremists who organized protests against the book worldwide. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, issued a fatwa — a religious decree — issuing a death sentence not only against Rushdie but “all those involved in [the novel’s] publication who were aware of its content.” Rushdie ended up living the next 11 years of his life in seclusion under guard by British authorities, and two of his translators were killed. “Bookstores were firebombed — Collets and Dillons in London, Abbey’s in Sydney,” Rushdie recalled. “Libraries refused to stock the book, chains refused to carry it, a dozen printers in France refused to print the French edition, and more threats were made against publishers.” Even Muslim leaders like Abdullah al-Abdal and Salem el-Behir in Belgium were killed by other Muslims for publicly defending Rushdie’s right to write his book.
In 2004, Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh, great grand-nephew of the legendary artist Vincent van Gogh, was murdered by a Muslim immigrant over his short film Submission, a collaboration with Somali-born Ayaan Hirsi Ali targeting Islam for its alleged oppression of women. Hirsi Ali, a naturalized Dutch citizen, was forced to flee the country and move to the U.S. The next year Flemming Rose, editor of a small Danish newspaper called Jyllands-Posten, sought an illustrator for a children’s book about Muhammad. Three artists turned him down outright and the one he hired insisted on anonymity. This inspired Rose to commission 12 Danish artists to create cartoons depicting Muhammad visually — itself a sin in Islam — because, as Rose told Newsweek, “I was concerned about a tendency towards self-censorship among people in artistic and cultural circles in Europe.”
The Muhammad cartoons — including a particularly incendiary one that showed Muhammad’s turban as a bomb — led to a resolution passed in December 2005 by the Organization of Islamic Conferences (OIC), a group of leaders from 56 Muslim-majority nations, at their convention in Saudi Arabia. The OIC’s Web site stated that its member states “expect from the EU [European Union] to identify Islamophobia as a dangerous phenomenon and to observe and combat it … by creating suitable observance mechanisms and revising its legislation” (emphasis mine). When Europe’s governments quite rightly resisted the pressure from the OIC to put an asterisk on their guarantees of civil liberties and free speech where Islam and Muhammad are concerned, Muslim protesters stormed and sometimes burned the embassies of Denmark and other European countries where the cartoons had been published.
In the March 2006 issue of my publication, Zenger’s Newsmagazine (no longer in print but available online at http://zengersmag.blogspot.com), I wrote an editorial about the Jyllands-Posten controversy called “The Terrorists’ Veto” in which I said that the OIC’s resolution “seems to mean that the governments of the world’s Muslim countries expect the governments of Europe to police their citizens to make sure that no caricatures or images of Muhammad ever darken the pages of a European newspaper again.” My title was a reference to the lawyers’ phrase “the hecklers’ veto,” meaning the way a group of sufficiently determined and assertive protesters can deny someone free speech by crashing their meeting and shouting them down. The attacks on Salman Rushdie, Theo van Gogh, the Jyllands-Posten cartoon and films like The Message and Innocence of Muslims seem to me a broader, more sinister version of the hecklers’ veto: the terrorists’ veto, designed to intimidate individuals, media companies and governments into playing by radical Islam’s rules out of fear for their lives if they don’t.
Beyond that, there’s a deeper clash of values between a relatively liberal West that allows freedom of religion and freedom of speech — even if the speech involves ridiculing someone else’s religion — and a Muslim world that never went through the Enlightenment and has no concept of the separation of church and state. The words of Jesus, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s,” have no equivalent in Islam. Islam is an all-encompassing system that sets rules not only for how people believe spiritually but how they conduct themselves in their daily lives and how they settle disputes with each other. Jesus famously disclaimed any interest in state power; Muhammad not only sought but obtained it and ended his life as the first Caliph of the Arab world. As I wrote in 2006, “Radical Islam still believes in ideas the West gave up long ago: heresy trials, witch hunts, the Inquisition and the idea that ‘respect’ for their religion should be enshrined in civil law and that even nonbelievers who criticize or ridicule Islam should be punished, often with death.”
Not that the West’s hands are entirely clean about these issues even now. Great Britain still had an anti-blasphemy law on the books. Germany makes it illegal to disseminate the writings of Adolf Hitler or any of the ideas behind Nazism — though German neo-Nazis can log onto American Web sites and read and download Mein Kampf in the original. And even in the United States, the first country in the world to give its citizens a constitutional guarantee of freedom of religion, there’s an active radical Christian Right that believes this is a “Christian nation” and that the majestic words of the First Amendment — “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” — merely means that the U.S. government can’t pick one Christian denomination over all the others and make it an “official” church the way Anglicanism is in Britain or Roman Catholicism is in Italy.
We’ve seen the U.S. radical Christian right at work imposing their values on others. We’ve seen bombings of family planning clinics and murders of doctors who perform abortions. We’ve seen state after state pass ballot measures limiting marriage to one man and one woman, after their supporters made specific appeals to voters to translate “the Biblical definition of marriage” into binding law. Ironically, they’re not only wrong about “the Biblical definition of marriage” — which isn’t one man and one woman, but one man and as many women as he can support financially — they’re also violating the First Amendment rights of the Unitarian-Universalists, United Church of Christ and other religions who see nothing wrong with same-sex partners marrying each other and would perform such ceremonies themselves if the law allowed. And we’ve seen attempts to insinuate religious doctrine into the public schools, not only through campaigns to add so-called “intelligent design” to science education but also through so-called “Bible study” groups and “Good News Clubs” aimed specifically at building peer pressure on children to believe as their radical Christian classmates believe. (See the Web site of freelance writer Katherine Stewart at http://thegoodnewsclub.com for more information.)
I agree with the British spiritual writer Karen Armstrong, who said in her book The Battle for God — a comparison of radical movements within Islam, Christianity and Judaism — that any religious or spiritual tradition is legitimate as long as it remains rooted in love. When it crosses the line — when it sees other people from other traditions as less than human and thereby justifies killing them or taking away their rights — then it becomes illegitimate and dangerous. The makers of the film Innocence of Muslims deliberately set out to tweak the noses of Muslims — and not just radical Muslims — by not only having an actor play Muhammad on screen but depicting him as a polymorphously perverse child molester and in general playing into the anti-Muslim stereotypes radical Christians have been perpetrating since Peter the Hermit called Europe to the Crusades. It was a vicious, nasty thing for them to do, but they had both the legal and the moral right to do it — and U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and his three colleagues shouldn’t have had to die because a few radical Muslims can’t or won’t accept the values of freedom of religion and freedom of speech.
Correction: An earlier version of this column referenced media speculation that this film may have been made by a Jewish American. That theory has since been debunked in media accounts, including the Los Angeles Times and Wall Street Journal.