Even though the details about the producer of a 13 minute film about the life of the Prophet Muhammad are vague, the film has ignited a firestorm of protests and anger in North Africa, the Near East, and Central Asia. Alleged to be a Los Angeles Copt of Egyptian background, Sam Bacile (believed to be an alias for Nakoula Bassily Nakoula) has produced a despicable film that has not only drawn on every imaginable Muslim stereotype, but it has also indulged in hate speech and the vilification of the youngest of the Abrahamic faiths.
In a series of disjointed and non-sequential scenes and through an assortment of bizarre characters who interact with the Prophet, Bacile’s first scene establishes the following: The Prophet has 61 wives and girlfriends; he is depicted as a disheveled Neanderthal; he is sitting outside a tent in a desert-like setting; he is wildly grasping onto a large bone, wolfing down large chunks of stringy meat; and he is repeatedly described as a bastard. In the second scene the Prophet is asked to go into a tent where a seated woman (with widespread legs and thighs completely exposed) who first tells him that, because he has no underwear, he needs to be modest. Soon she tells him: “I command you. Sit down and put your head between my thighs,” something he lasciviously obliges.
To enhance the negative stereotype, a series of close-ups and cropped scenes depict Muslims in the vilest manner. They have ugly teeth, long, stringy beards, their robes are filthy; they brandish bloody swords in every scene, they sell children into slavery so as buy weapons, they are good at looting, and threaten their captives with “extortion or death;” they claim that “every non-Muslim is an infidel” and their “lands, their women, their children are our spoils.” The Prophet is portrayed as “a child molester,” a gay man, “a murderous thug,” and a lascivious character who “forces himself on women.” In the last few scenes the Prophet is represented as a serial sex fiend/rapist who derives pleasure from seeing an old woman whose legs are torn asunder by two camels walking in opposite directions. For a virulently racist finale, the final scene depicts the execution of a young captive tied to a pole – a sword dripping with blood is shown behind the man’s back and above his head.
Last week the reaction in the Muslim world was swift, bloody, and very messy. From Morocco, North Africa’s most Western Muslim country, to Sudan, Egypt, Iraq and as far as Central Asia, Muslims have reacted with fury. And, ironically, in Tunisia and Egypt, two so-called Arab Springers, the US embassies were attacked and firebombed. The unkindest cut of all occurred in Libya, a country Ob-illary/Sarkozy/Cameron/Merkel/Berlusconi team bombed into yet another iffy Arab Spring; cowardly revenge was exacted on four innocent American men. Sarkozy lost his re-election bid and Obama, in a fight for his re-election, sent two naval ships to Libya.
The heinous killing of US Ambassador Christopher Stephens and embassy employees Glen Doherty, Sean Smith, and Tyrone Woods is a barbaric crime that should be criticized by everyone, especially folks in the Arab world. So should the slaughter of tens of thousands of Arab civilians.
The abhorrent and cold-blooded murder is a blatant violation of Bedouin/Arab codes that predate Islam and are enshrined in the Arab and Muslim traditions; these codes have been revered and practiced for centuries. Generosity and hospitality are valued and honored as sacrosanct social norms of conduct that govern one’s interactions with family, friends, guests and the extended community. This code stipulates that a guest, even a stranger, must be honored, respected, and protected. By committing this dastardly deed, the killers have not only committed an egregious crime and violated a sacred code, but they have also helped reinforce all the negative stereotypes and myths that have become a well-organized and well-funded cottage industry of virulent anti-Muslim xenophobia in the U.S. and Europe. Politicians, self-styled preachers, pundits, and pseudo scholars have exploited the 9/11 tragedy to promote their agendas. And all the recent rhetorical platitudes about the Arab Spring are phony; pandering politicians and partisan pundits, and especially a media that has gone AWOL, have clearly demonstrated that they have a superficial understanding of the root causes of the deep resentment the Arab and Muslim worlds harbor towards the West. And a failed Ob-illary Drone/capitulation-to-Netanyahu and a cozy friendship with the Dictators-for-Life Arab potentates approach to the current failed Foreign Policy have not helped. And God help us if the trigger-happy Mitt/Ryan team is elected come November.
From Morocco to the west and as far as Bangladesh to the east, indigenous populations harbor deep resentment towards British, French, and Italian colonial rule, a domination that was characterized by brutal suppression; for well over a century now exploiting the natural resources and geo-strategic control trumped everything. The post 1917 dicing, slicing and redrawing of geographical boundaries by Britain and France (especially in Palestine, Greater Syria, Turkey, Kurdistan, Iraq and Pakistan) without regard to historic, national and ethic sensitivities was a serious mistake for which the region and the rest of the world are paying even to this day; Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, Kurdistan, and Iraq have borne the brunt of this meddling. Since the early 1950’s North Africa and the Near East have exchanged the European tyrannical yokes for equally brutal indigenous tyrannical yokes. Many of today’s tyrants hide behind religion and the Palestinian Nakba to suppress their populations. And since the 1950’s the peoples of the region have been living under the tyranny of two yokes; regional dictators and their western oil-addicted bedfellows have struck a Faustian compact to maintain a steady flow of the black gold.
When Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ was released in 2004, many in the Christian community voiced their disbelief and anger at what they perceived to be an affront to Christianity, and leading Jewish organizations voiced their concerns about the age-old libel charge. In his collage The Holy Virgin Mary, Chris Ofili mixed elephant dung and dead animals to create an image of the Virgin, a medium that elicited a very strong reaction by leading Catholic figures. Rudy Giuliani ‘s 1999 attempts to punish (funding and legal proceedings) the Brooklyn Art Museum ended in a draw. Mapplethorpe’s all too explicitly homoerotic photographs were lambasted, and attempts to prosecute the Cincinnati Contemporary Art Center failed. Piss Christ, a 1987 photograph by Andrea Serrano, raised the ire of Christians, especially Catholics, and politicians. The artist placed a plastic crucifix in a vial containing his urine; Jessie Helms threatened to withhold funding from the National Endowment for the Arts. Free speech won the day for Ofili and Serrano. However, Serrano’s photograph was met with stronger reactions in other climes; in Australia the photograph was vandalized, and on Palm Sunday 2011 angry protesters forced their way into a gallery in Avignon, France, and destroyed the composition with hammers. In his re-election bid for the French presidency, Sarkozy attempted to make political hay by siding with the demonstrators.
In 2004 film maker, writer and critic Theo van Gogh collaborated with Somali-born Dutch citizen Ayan Hirsi to produce an eleven minute film under the title Submission. Instead of producing a statement on the status of women in Muslim societies, the film employed some of the worst Muslim and Arab stock stereotyping that included a scene on arranged marriages, a scene on the flogging of women, and a pernicious scene on the molestation of a girl by a relative. The scenes were presented as routine denigration and molestation of women in Muslim societies. It is analogous to judging American society by the reprehensible child molestation of children by Catholic priests and the likes of Jerry Sandusky? Prior to the film’s release, Van Gogh’s anti-immigrant sentiments had been duly noted in print and public forums. In late 2004 Van Gogh was senselessly murdered by a Dutch Moroccan, and in November of that year there were 106 anti-Muslim retaliatory attacks on mosques and Muslims in Holland. Subsequent parliamentary discussions on blasphemy laws (against Jews, Christians and Muslims) got nowhere.
In 2005 the Danish newspaper Jyllands–Politiken published several cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad in less than flattering terms, and one cartoon in particular depicted the Prophet with a turban in the shape of a bomb. At the same time the newspaper refused to publish anti-Christian and anti-Jewish cartoons drawn by Danish artists. Demonstrations and protests in Denmark and across Europe and the Middle East (some of which turned violent and bloody) hardened European resolve and German, Swedish, French and Belgian newspapers printed the same cartoons. And threats of economic boycotts of Danish goods prompted Danish Prime Minister Anders Rasmussen to state that this was Denmark’s worst crisis since WWII. I am of the opinion that the fault lines in Europe’s economic woes were by then becoming more apparent, and the tendency to use immigrants as scapegoats for economic problems added fuel to the xenophobic sentiments that had begun to sweep through Europe. This, combined with violent demonstrations in Europe and the Muslim worlds, served as a wedge issue in what can be best described as the new cultural wars. Because Muslim immigrants, by and large, are concentrated in ghettoized neighborhoods, the process of assimilation (through education and employment) in the fabric of European societies is slow. Marginalized economically, socially and politically, and told (through legislation) that their women could not wear the traditional head scarves, European Muslims, angry, alienated, and having the welcome rug pulled from under their feet, have found solace and comforting affinities in the social and religious support they find in their own ethnic enclaves, the Little Pakistans, Little Moroccos, and Little Iraqs.
While free speech won the day in Denmark and across Europe, it did nothing to mend the fault line of mistrust that has alienated white Europeans and their Muslim minorities. Many Muslims rightfully have posed the following question: Why is it that many European countries have passed laws prohibiting anyone from denying the Holocaust — even to the extent of prosecuting and imprisoning those who utter the rabid denial? And why are public figures and the media allowed to denigrate the Prophet and Islam by resorting to virulent images and hateful narratives? Why is one prosecuted for voicing an opinion and the other given a pass under the guise and protection of free speech? Are the two not equally abhorrent? And finally, why is it that the European Forum on Anti-Semitism has remained silent when the religion of millions of Semitic Muslims is vilified?
Those who think that military might and billion-dollar bribes in the form of foreign aid are going to change the deep seated resentment towards the US and the West are wrong. Besides, we’ve seen the poor return on the military adventures in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya, and how the foreign aid with which we, the taxpayers of this country entrust our leaders, goes into tyrants’ Swiss accounts and regional military adventures.
George Bush’s answer to his own question about “Why do they hate us?” was answered with a bloody war that pulverized Iraq back to the stone age and brought us to the brink of financial disaster. It would take several volumes to expound on “Why do they hate us?” To put it succinctly, the digital technology has pulled the drape on two sore spots that feed into the anguish and humiliation that plague the Muslim and Arab worlds. And it is through these two prisms that the Muslim masses filter regional and international events and policies.
In Israel and the occupied territories mosques and Korans are burned and defiled, Muslim cemeteries are bulldozed (as in the case of the 7th century Mamila cemetery which was leveled and over 7,000 thousand graves were desecrated and dug up so as to build, of all things, a Simon Wiesenthal Center of Tolerance). Palestinians are being ethnically cleansed in a perniciously systematic peristaltic manner, and natural resources are stolen from their rightful owners. Only two weeks ago Jewish settlers broke into the compound of a Catholic monastery and defaced the walls with graffiti; “Jesus is a monkey” said one phrase. To their credit, a handful of Israelis apologized and made amends. That Netanyahu is holding Obama, Romney, and the US Congress at bay, and that he is weekly threatening to bomb Iran leaves the folks in that region of the world in fear of yet another senseless war, and it seems to me that these violent reactions should also be seen as a painful cry by the masses of the region: We’re tired of war!!! Enough is enough, not in my neighborhood, not no more.
The second and equally important prism has to do with a fractious Arab world of haves and have nots, both of which are ruled by corrupt tyrants. Muslim Malaysian, Bangladeshi, and Indonesian nationals who toil in indentured servitude in the oil rich Gulf countries resent the manner in which they are treated. And the sloshy oil rich rulers are expending fortunes to stay in power. And because of the West’s insatiable addiction to oil, these potentates muscle Washington into abeyance. In a quid pro quo clutch they’ve become surrogates for military intervention (Libya and Syria are cases in point); how ironic, while Saudi Arabia and Qatar have supported the Libyan uprisings, they have denied the minorities in their midst the same freedom. And finally, there is a history of brutal assaults etched in the minds of Near Easterners. The British meddling in Iran and Iraq which dates to the 1920’s when Churchill dropped ton after ton of mustard gas on Iraqi civilians, a violation that was repeated with guided missiles in the last decade during which tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians were killed, maimed, or humiliated in the infamous Abu Ghreibs that sprouted in Iraq and Afghanistan. And there are lingering memories of US outsourced torture in Egypt, Syria, and Jordan. One can only hope that should Obama get re-elected, he would change the course of US foreign policy. We need to make friends with the masses, and not those who rule them.
By all accounts Ambassador Stephens loved the people of the region. He spoke their language, he understood their culture, and he was trying to help Libyans forge their way out of chaos and into a democratic future. He was a guest in Libya, and he should have been treated as such and accorded protection.
Is it not time for sane Jews, sane Christians, and sane Muslims to sit down for a serious discussion about peace and harmony?
Raouf J. Halaby is a Palestinian from Jerusalem and a naturalized US citizen. He is a Professor of English and Art at a private liberal arts university in Arkansas. firstname.lastname@example.org