Anti-Islam film protests: a reification of public debate?

Beyond their regrettable cost in terms of human lives, "Innocence of Muslims" and the subsequent protests that spread across the Arab world ultimately entrap the world in a binary entrenchment reminiscent of the civilizational justifications for the War on Terror.

An anti-Innocence of Muslims protest in Pakistan. Demotix/MusarratUllah Jan. All rights reserved.An anti-Innocence of Muslims protest in Pakistan. Demotix/MusarratUllah Jan. All rights reserved.

Over the last few days, international news coverage has been largely dominated by reports on protests across the world against a film that these protestors claim is a direct insult to the prophet Muhammad.  These protests started with the storming of the American embassy in Cairo as well as an attack on the American embassy in Libya on September 11.  After this, protests and revolts soon spread across the world, including Sudan, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Yemen, Lebanon, Tunisia, Belgium, United Kingdom, Iran, Thailand, India, Qatar, Gaza, Afghanistan, Australia and the Netherlands.  In Egypt, the situation deteriorated rapidly as the US embassy called in the Egyptian security services in order to restore order, resulting in more than 220 injuries, 431 detentions (including a large number of minors) and two deaths.  In Libya, the situation was also serious since the US consulate in Benghazi was attacked by rocket-propelled grenades, mortars and small arms, which resulted in the death of the US ambassador and three staff members.  Since then violent protest spread across the world like wildfire, specifically targeting western embassies and institutions – resulting in the death of people in Yemen, Pakistan, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Tunisia and Sudan.  The USA government increased its security measures by withdrawing some diplomats, deploying special counter-terrorism marine units in Yemen and Libya and stationing two destroyers just off the North African coast.  Hence, following the news lately, one could almost imagine that nothing much has changed in the world – that no Arab Spring has taken place and that we are still living the 9/11 nightmare according to which global politics can be easily divided between a fundamentalist Muslim east and a securitised west. 

Of course, in her speech, Hillary Clinton tried to rhetorically defuse the situation by stating that the US government condemns this particular film, whose purpose is cynical and offensive as it seeks to denigrate religion.  Yet, the differences between the US government’s responses to the Egyptian protests and the Libyan ones have been striking.  In the Egyptian case, Obama indirectly threatened the Muslim Brotherhood-led government by stating that the Egyptians are neither friends nor enemies and directly threatened to withhold American aid if the Morsi government did not act more resolutely.  With regards to Libya, he quickly condemned the killings but argued that the attacks will not sever the relations between the two countries. Here, his message resonated with Hillary Clinton’s earlier statement, which, seeking to salvage support at home for the military intervention in Libya, insisted that the people attacking the US consulate were not representative of the people the Americans helped liberate in Libya, but that this was an attack by a "small and savage group”. Indeed, whilst the protests have been spreading across the world, we should not overestimate their size and recognise that the large majority of people in those countries do not appear to support them.

Yet, this does not mean the issues at stake are any less significant.  These issues, however, have nothing to do with either the claims or indeed the quality of the film (called “Innocence of Muslims”) – both of which are rubbish and can be disputed without any difficulty.  Rather, they concern the claims surrounding the production of the film.  When news of the protests in Cairo first emerged in the international sphere, neither the title nor the producers of the film could be determined.  Rather, news about the film’s production process emerged sporadically, and above all confusingly.  At first, news reports stated that the film was a new Hollywood blockbuster to be released soon.  It appears that many protesters in Cairo still believe this version to be true, namely that this film – just like any new production in Egypt – had obtained state approval and would soon be released all across the western world, drawing huge crowds into the movie theatres.  Then, it was suggested that the film was produced by Egyptian Copts in the United States of America, whilst later it was believed that the film was – at least partially – produced by a Dutch production house (who have, after all, their own islamophobic tradition, as evidenced by Geert Wilder’s film ‘Fitna’). In the end, it was established that the film was in fact produced by a ‘Sam Bacile’. 

Immediately, rumours emerged about Bacile’s real name and identity, with some believing he had an Israeli background and others asserting he was a Coptic Christian (although all agreed that he was residing in the USA).  The rumours about Bacile’s Israeli background seem to have originated from his earlier interview with the Associated Press, in which he stated that producing this film cost him five million dollars (despite its obvious low cost quality), a sum given to him by 100 Jewish donors. However, in the end, Sam Bacile was unmasked as Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, a militant Coptic separatist residing in the USA.  Nakoula has been convicted of fraud in the past, and now appears to have misled the cast of the film, who argue they were participating in a film called ‘Desert Warrior’ under the directorship of Alan Roberts (a former porn director).

Slowly but surely, it emerged that the film’s producers belong to the extreme end of right-wing political discourse on Islam.  For instance, the film’s consultant, Steve Klein – an insurance salesmen from Hemet, California – is closely linked to the ‘counter-jihadist’ and ‘anti-Muslim crusaders’ movement, which had connections with Anders Breivik in Norway as well as other Islamophobes such as Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer (who claimed that Islam was nothing but a doctrine of warfare). Klein has not only complained about Mitt Romney’s support for a Muslim state in Israel (!) but also insisted that the Muslim Brotherhood is a global network of Islamic terrorists who will kill people if they don’t convert to Islam.  Klein is closely associated with another radical Coptic separatist who supported and promoted the film, Morris Sadek.  Sadek holds the same staunchly anti-Islamic views, and was for example seen on the streets of Washington on 11 September 2010 shouting ‘Islam is evil!’ whilst holding a bible, American flag and crucifix.  Another supporter of the film was the notorious American pastor Terry Jones, who organised a Quran-burning-event earlier this year. 

What is interesting – and scary – about this concoction of individuals involved in the production and promotion of this film is precisely that they come from right-wing Christian groups, who carry their own industry of Islamophobic knowledge production.  This knowledge production is closely tied to what Paul Sedra recently called the “persecution industry” that emerged amongst right-wing evangelicals in the US, and which strategically employs the plight of the Egyptian Copts to leverage for its own ideological position with regards to middle eastern politics (i.e. the promotion of Israeli security interests and a staunch anti-Islam rhetoric). 

Throughout the post-9/11 decade, such right-wing groups have sought to reinforce the binary opposition between the good and civilised Christian west versus the evil and barbaric Islamic west. Furthermore, they profoundly dislike President Barack Obama, who has been depicted as ‘Satan himself’ at the worst and at best as a ‘Muslim infiltrator’ (also due to his second name ‘Hussein’).  Hence, however alien, the political dimension of these events should not be underestimated, as this chaos is unleashed just as Americans are gearing towards the next election, in which Obama is seeking to govern for a second term.  Thus, whilst not giving into conspiracy theories, one cannot help but wonder why, given the fact that the English version of the film was already on YouTube in July, the Arabic version was only uploaded a couple of days prior to the eleventh anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.  After all, the instability created by these events and the depiction of a never-ending battle between the Christian west and Muslim (middle) east serve their political purposes and have already been picked up by Republican candidate Mitt Romney.

Moreover, fearing world domination by ‘radical Islamists’, these groups have been radically opposed to the Arab Spring revolutions that demanded socio-economic and political rights for people across the Middle East.  Now that the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood is indeed governing Egypt, people like Sadek, Nakoula and Klein appear to be seeking other ways to undermine the Egyptian government.  And, with this goal in mind, they targeted Prophet Muhammad directly, by depicting him as a light-headed, sexually obsessed idiot.  Through this depiction, they basically reproduced the classical Orientalist image of Muslims as both violent terrorists and impulsive animals incapable of controlling their sexual lust.  Moreover, by targeting Muhammad directly, they ensured they would not only insult Muslims in particular countries but across the entire world, thereby guaranteeing the ignition of ‘a fire’ somewhere.  This ‘fire’ was of course kindled by Nakoula’s initial (but apparently unfounded) assertions that the film was financially supported by Jewish contributors, which directly tapped in on fears of American and Zionists conspiracies in the Middle East.

Once the fire is ablaze, it is subsequently used to prove the point the authors set out to make in the first place, namely that all Muslims are violent and irrational.  Hence, it is not surprising that Sadek has used the Egyptian protests to argue that “the violence that [the film] has caused in Egypt is further evidence of how violent the religion and people are”.  Equally, the notoriously right-wing Ayaan Hirshi Ali has also jumped on the bandwagon speaking of a Muslim rage that is inherent in the Islamic faith, and Said Shehata in Egypt insisted that there are passages in the Quran that legitimate the kind of violence we are witnessing now.  The problem with this kind of discourse is that it essentializes Islamic faith and its believers as violent, and entraps the world in a vicious cycle of hatred and distrust by creating radical oppositions. 

A difficult question thus arises: how do we get out of this vicious "Huntingtonian" cycle, in which the world is in a permanent “clash of civilisations”, and switch to one of dialogue and trust?  Or rather, how can we move away from a public domain characterised by flag burning, rocket attacks and insults, towards one where understanding can be reached? The difficulty here is not only to temper the hot-headed sentiments regarding the content of the film, but also, and most importantly, to break through the institutional embedding of radical lobby groups within the public domain – lobby groups who deliberately move public discourse away from rational debate and towards passionate sentiments and rocket-throwing.  For this reason, I argue that it is all the more important not to get caught up in the clearly provocative claims of the film but rather note by whom this film is produced and with what political goal in mind. 

We also must note that this reifying of public debate into radical opposition is not only politically convenient for right-wing Christians, but also for those working for the anti-Coptic Al-Nas television station in Egypt, which aired the trailer of the film.  Al-Nas has already had a lawsuit filed against it in the past for the promotion of strife between Muslims and Christians.  Furthermore, this oppositional discourse also suits the Salafi-style groupings that initiated and carried out the protests in most of the affected countries, and even insisted that the Islamic world will “vanquish the cross-carrying armies as [they] have done before”.

The sad thing is that as the public domain again risks being locked in a 9/11 discourse, the more important issues disappear off the radar.  For example, whilst the film tapped into an existing anti-American sentiment in the Middle East region, the current violent protests do little to engage with the underlying reasons for these particular grievances towards the USA, namely its neo-colonial practices and policies in the region.  These policies include its unwavering support for Israel’s occupation of Palestine, the securitisation and militarisation of the entire region (including the longstanding propping up of dictatorial regimes) as well as the imposition of neoliberal economic policies through International Financial Institutions such as the IMF – which, through the infamous structural adjustment programmes, have resulted in many people lacking a provision of their basic needs (such as healthcare, education, housing, food, etc.).  However, these issues are complex and difficult to resolve, and so perhaps it is easier to focus one’s anger on simple black and white issues such as insults to the prophet. Yet, once the angry feelings have dissipated, these difficult issues facing the middle eastern region will still have to be dealt with.  

It is thus essential to start looking beyond those binary positions, something which the Arab Spring (despite all its ongoing difficulties) had achieved as ordinary people emerged in the public domain and across global television screens as they demanded their social, political, and economic rights. Hence, our focus should move away from this reified 9/11 discourse and address the more complex issues of social, political and economic rights that the people in the Middle East demand and deserve.

About the author

Vivienne Matthies-Boon will be an Assistant Professor in the International Relations of the Middle East at the University of Amsterdam from September 2013.  She focuses on Critical Theory and the Middle East, and works closely with a variety of Egyptian activists and civil society actors. Her writings can be found on academia.edu