Last night, I spent nearly 14 minutes watching the YouTube trailer of “Innocence of Muslims,” the video that ignited rioting, initially in Egypt and Libya, and then throughout much of the Muslim world.
If you aren’t a masochist, don’t watch it. It’s really ugly. Beyond the talentless camera work, terrible dialogue and abysmal acting, and way beyond the obvious over-dubbing and the green-screen backgrounds, it is a dystopic fantasy world of hate and violence. Scenes include Muslims, wearing fake beards, slaughtering Christians in today’s Egypt with flashbacks suggesting that the Prophet Muhammad is a “bastard of an unknown father.” There are sex scenes involving the Prophet, and it is filled with homophobic and pedophilic allusions. To a religion that reveres its prophet to the point where most Muslims believe any visual depictions of Muhammad are blasphemy, the film is offensive and despicable.
As the video went viral, protests, rioting and death followed, particularly throughout the Muslim world. Demonstrations were mostly non-violent in countries like Malaysia and Indonesia, where citizens have a voice in governance, while more violent protests emerged in countries where citizen empowerment, poverty and illiteracy are critical issues. In the newly-awakening Arab World, many citizens appear to have seen this video as the final insult — the last straw.
As events continue to unfold, let’s consider where the initial eruptions occurred.
In Benghazi, Libya, where four Americans, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens, were assassinated, I believe the film was just the excuse for the killers to launch a well-planned attack. Whether the attackers were Al-Qaida, Salafis or Wahhabis or old Kaddafi loyalists, or whether they had deliberately picked 9/11 as the time of their rampage, is still unknown, but the (un)timely release of the film gave them cover.
In Cairo, Egypt, the film was certainly the spark. Radical Muslim preachers exploited the passions of their followers to try and perhaps occupy the American Embassy. The rioters were unarmed and there were no American casualties. Recently elected Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, still being challenged by secularists on one side and by Salafis and conservative Muslim Brothers on the other, was slow to respond.
Morsi’s slowness, I believe, was not an endorsement of the violence. It was because he knew, because of the film’s inflammatory content and the raw street passions, that he could not be seen to support the Americans. In a fragile democracy where political stability is still a major issue, protecting another country’s First Amendment rights is not a priority.
From an American point of view, it’s true that no matter how offensive the film is that it is protected by Freedom of Speech. It is equally true in America that just because it is a right, it does not make it right.
Remember the American outrage at Piss Christ, the 1987 photograph by Andres Serrano that depicted a small plastic crucifix in a glass of urine? Just imagine the outrage, perhaps in some small Bible-belt town, if someone wanted to show a film depicting Jesus engaging in sex acts. There is a right to make that film, and to show that film, but does that make it right? As we exercise rights, we need to consider: When does free speech become hate speech — and is there a point where limits are reached?
In response to the murder of Americans in Libya and the agitation against American embassies and interests throughout the region, President Obama has promised, “No act of terror will go unpunished.”
That’s important: Given the way he got Osama Bin Laden, I would be very worried if I were one of the assassins of the Americans in Libya.
With the Arab Awakening still in its infancy, this is a critical time.
Democratic advances can easily be reversed. Iran and Syria continue to demand attention. It’s not a time for neocon diplomacy and confrontation; undemocratic factions, particularly Islamist ones, can try to seize power by exploiting popular unrest and volatility.
Mitt Romney chose neither to be as deliberate and careful as President Obama nor as hesitant as President Morsi. Romney’s decision to attack Obama’s response to the challenges from Benghazi and Cairo was impetuous and potentially dangerous. With one intemperate statement, Mitt Romney jumped the shark.
According to Romney and his apologists, President Obama committed a mortal sin by seeming to apologize to Muslims when the American embassy in Cairo released a statement condemning anti-Muslim bigotry.
Unfortunately for Mr. Romney, who either was unaware of or didn’t care about the chronology of events, the Cairo embassy staff had tweeted, in an attempt to diffuse what they saw as a potential for violence, BEFORE any violence had occurred:
“The Embassy of the United States in Cairo condemns the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims — as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions.”
Mitt Romney has not been slow to invoke President Ronald Reagan during this campaign, so I suggest that he might consider how candidate Reagan responded when “Operation Eagle Claw,” President Carter’s 1980 mission to rescue American hostages in Iran, failed. Reagan said, “This is a difficult day for all of us Americans. …; It is time for us …; to stand united. It is a day for quiet reflection …; when words should be few and confined essentially to our prayers.” George H.W. Bush, also a candidate during that election cycle, said, “I unequivocally support the president of the United States. …”
There are two possible reasons for Romney’s position this past week:
First, he is truly uninformed and rash and doesn’t have the temperament to be a world leader. The suggestion that if Romney had been president this week the attacks would not have taken place is unsustainable. Romney’s certainly not ready for the 3 a.m. phone call.
Or, second, Republicans want to continue portraying Obama as the Other, the dark-skinned Muslim sympathizer. Except for its lack of production values, “Innocence of Muslims” is not much different from “Obsession,” the film that appeared just before the 2008 presidential election. Their messages of hate and bigotry are similar — their targets interchangeable.
The evil of “Innocence of Muslims” is compounded by the fact that its cowardly creators, primarily bigoted American Coptic Christians, tried to divert attention from themselves by claiming it was produced by an Israeli-American and funded by Jewish donors. Such a cynical anti-Semitic twist, a blood libel, an inflammatory charge of Jews attacking Islam, cannot stand unchallenged.
It’s a dangerous world out there. We must threaten the use of force very carefully. Whether the violence of terrorists or by mobs on the street, whether by states or by non-state actors, violence limits everyone’s options. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote, “Through violence you murder the hater, but you do not murder hate…; Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
Acts of ignorance should not go unpunished.
This column appeared originally in the Portsmouth Herald