Every few years at least, someone “blasphemes” Islam, and we Muslims, respond predictably, providing real-time evidence of the reasons for our own further villainization. It is a vicious circle in which masses of Muslims are jerked like puppets by opposing players in global politics. The rhetoric being pushed in mainstream media these days circulates around the phobia of “radical Islam” co-opting the Arab Spring into an Arab winter. Protesting Muslims are packaged as either radical Islamists or lurking football hooligans who want to stir up a fight whenever anyone passes a harmless critique of our medieval eschatology.
Muslims who condemn violence in the name of their faith, but who also condemn the scorn and hate of anti-Islamist radicals often find themselves in an awkward place – wishing to defend freedom of expression, but also deeply troubled by the undeniably rising tide of anti-Islamic rage. We are left with a choice. We can turn a blind eye, absorb the mockery of such novels, cartoons, and films, which will eventually be assigned to back shelves where shoddy art is kept, and assure ourselves that being Muslim at this particular time requires having a tough skin and a sense of humor. The other option is to refuse to be described as perpetual simpletons who cannot understand the sophisticated nature of freedom of speech as practised in “democracies”, and actively raise awareness against intentionally racist cultural commodities purposefully designed to incite Muslim blowback for political purposes. Any response to the recent events in Libya, Egypt and, now, Yemen needs to take an honest look at how these events have been carefully staged over the past days. This is not an international incident about saving freedom of speech from medieval Muslims. Nor is it a secular/post-secular confrontation on the nature of critique and blasphemy. It is a confrontation on issues created by imperialism, an exposé of a cynical and mysterious global polity, and a growing anti-Islamism, circulating around a host of loosely connected signifiers, be it a film today, a hastily named teddy bear tomorrow.
But for a minute let us imagine it is a debate about blasphemy. We should begin by at least recognizing that religious language and symbols play a major role in the lives of many of the world’s citizens. In Is Critique Secular: Blasphemy, Injury and Free Speech, a dialogue between Talal Asad, Saba Mahmood, Wendy Brown and Judith Butler in response to the Danish cartoon crisis of 2005, Asad argues that all societies put limits on individual’s self-expression and notes that Europe has a “proscription” on theological language in the political domain. I would add that this proscription goes far beyond Europe and is being actively enforced on numerous global communities in the name of international stability and progress. In fact, the developments around Innocence of Muslims raises queries about the evolving nature of the social contract in a global world with the realization that the challenges of the social contract are more taxing now than ever. In the past, the social contract was made between an individual and the nation state – the individual gave up specific “individual” freedoms in order to gain the benefits and protections of being a citizen of a nation state, which entailed respecting the rights and beliefs of others in that state. The goal was to protect various groups in this confined nation state from each other and give the state the power to patrol and administer these relationships. In the global environment, the individual’s social contract must be made with an international community, rather than a single nation state, as the individual agrees to give up certain rights in order to belong to and reap the benefits of that global community.
This exchange of benefits operates on a nation to nation level, of course, and this has become obvious over the past 24 hours in various statements made about the protests in Egypt and the unfortunate violence in Libya. A visibly baffled Hilary Clinton was reminiscent of George W. Bush after the September 11, 2001 attack who queried “why do they hate us” when she asked in reference to the attack on the American Consulate in Benghazi and the death of Ambassador Christopher Stevens: “How could this happen in a country we helped liberate, in a city we helped save from destruction?” Libya has been quick to deny that it broke its contract as are its angry Muslim citizens who do not agree with the shadowy “jihadist” contingent now blamed for the event. Libya has profusely apologized for not being able to control its unruly population, and in response President Obama promises he will “bring to justice” the unknown culprits, as ships sail and marines embark with guns blazing.
The alert has already been sounded that the “jihadists” are back and that this time they are accompanied by football hooligans, so we are told is the case in Egypt. For awhile the jihadists took a back seat as the world praised the secular nature of the Arab Spring and America poured its money into “democracy” building agencies that promote American values, compliance with Israel, and uninterrupted capitalist development in the region. Numerous commentators from the right and the left had assured us that radical Islam had already died out even before America’s illegal assassination of bin Laden. Curiously, the invisible jihadists were repackaged in the battle to topple Gaddafi as exemplified in how NATO brought forward Abd al-Hakim Belhaj as the commander of Tripoli's Military Council , even though he was a former commander of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) who had been “rendered” to Gaddafi for torture through the CIA rendition programme. In recent elections, after threatening a lawsuit regarding his rendition from Thailand, although an ally with the NATO alliance, Belhaj’s party did not win a single seat.
It seems the gloves are now off
The Orientalist jargon around the attack in Benghazi and the growing demonstrations in various Middle Eastern countries is dense and hurtful as commentators ask “was the Arab Spring worth it?”, answering, “only if the Arabs remain under our control”. It seems the gloves are now off and Arabs are being openly warned that their revolutions must proceed according to American interests. Astute observers of the revolutions have seen this disjuncture coming – compliance to big business and American profit does not necessarily mean an improvement in the economic conditions of the working classes who have been actively protesting and striking, in Egypt particularly, since the overthrow of the region’s dictators. As Joseph Massad eloquently argues: “The battle of the seasons is on; while the Americans are pressing on for an American Spring in the Arab world that will only be experienced as another American-sponsored Summer drought for the majority of the people of the region, the Arab peoples are working to transform the recent uprisings into nothing short of a cold American Winter”. Will the “innocence” of Americans be further exemplified with patronizing rhetoric against ungrateful Arabs who refuse to accept the “help” Americans are offering them along the path to “democracy”? Will they naively continue asking “how could this happen in a country we helped liberate?” With the jihadist now predictably center stage again, after being relegated to the back pages of history for the past year or so, is it too much to ask that Americans be a little less “innocent” and that all the players who provoked these violent and surreal events be held accountable? As destroyers head toward Libya to hunt down the culprits of the embassy attack and to prepare for any further violence in Egypt, can we appeal to the American government to seriously investigate the role of the obscure hate film Innocence of Muslims, made by shadowy American citizens of Israeli and/or Coptic Egyptian background, as a contributor to the death of its Ambassador?
The film was supposedly made by Sam Bacile, purportedly an Israeli American, whose identity has been called into question and connected to the Coptic American Nakoula Bassely Nakkoula. In a much publicized interview with the Wall Street Journal, the telephone voice claiming to be that of Bacile affirmed that he had raised "$5 million from 100 Jewish donors" and had made the film to expose "Islam as a hateful religion." "Islam is a cancer," he told the paper, "The movie is a political movie. It's not a religious movie." The obscure film was released in July 2012 but the trailer was dubbed in Arabic and placed on a website by an Egytpian-American, Coptic, anti-Islam activist Morris Sadek, , an ally of Pastor Terry Jones, the Florida pastor behind the Quran burnings in 2010. Morris Sadek included a link to the English-language trailer, along with other anti-Islam clips, in an Arabic-language blog post promoting a mock trial of Prophet Muhammad staged by Terry Jones on the anniversary of Sept. 11. This is not the first time that Pastor Jones has been involved in provoking hate crimes. In 2010 in an interview on Good Morning America President Obama appealed to the pastor directly: "If he's listening, I just hope he understands that what he's proposing to do is completely contrary to our values … this country has been built on the notions of religious freedom and religious tolerance," Obama said. "As a very practical matter, as commander (in) chief of the armed forces of the United States, I just want him to understand that this stunt that he is pulling could greatly endanger our young men and women in uniform who are in Iraq, who are in Afghanistan."
Clearly the actions of Bacile, whoever he may be, Nakkoula, Sadek, Jones and another “consultant” on the film, Klein, have put American lives in danger. By intentionally trying to provoke a hate crime they are as guilty as the unknown assassins who launched the rocket that killed Ambassador Stevens and his staff. If the American government can torture and try Bradley Manning for leaking information to Wikileaks which could have put lives at risk and further urge for the extradition of Julian Assange on the grounds that his work also put lives at risk, can it not hold this gang of right-winged Islamophobes responsible for Innocence of Muslims, produced to intentionally provoke hatred and violence, responsible for their actions? Have this band of hooligans and radicals not broken the social contract each individual makes to respect the beliefs of each other in the global landscape? A swift and in-depth inquiry into the making, funding, and promotion of the film and the planned fake trial would demonstrate to the world that the American response is a fair and balanced one and will also dispel accusations of conspiracy which are already beginning to emerge. Who is the real Sam Bacile? Right-winged conservatives attempting to influence the result of the American election and give the Republicans a boost? The Mossad intent on pressuring America to go along with its imperialist designs in Iran?
Try to imagine this: A group of “Islamo-fascists” in America, all American citizens, make a film insulting Judaism and an embassy in Tel Aviv is attacked, killing the Ambassador and members of his staff. Would not the American government investigate the ties between the American-made film and the attack in Tel Aviv? Would not the culprits behind the film be labelled as terrorists who promote hate crimes, finding themselves in the next cell to Bradley Manning? Hillary Clinton has assured the world that she personally considers the film “disgusting” and “reprehensible” but also affirms the right of the film-makers to make such a work that intentionally, by the admission of its own makers, provokes hate crimes : “I know it is hard for some people to understand why the United States cannot or does not just prevent these kinds of reprehensible videos from ever seeing the light of day.....Now, I would note that in today’s world with today’s technologies that is impossible. But even if it were possible, our country does have a long tradition of free expression, which is enshrined in our Constitution and in our law. We do not stop individual citizens from expressing their views no matter how distasteful they may be.”
In fact, it is not hard to understand at all. There is a distinct difference in the right to express one’s views, even crudely, and making a film which is, by the self-admission of its producer, “political” and designed to reveal the cancerous nature of Islam. Though Muslims can agree “violence in response to speech is not acceptable”, in Clinton’s words, must we also accept that intentional provocation of hatred and violence goes unpunished? A reasonable response of Muslims is condemnation of the attacks on embassies, yet the affirmation of the right to peacefully demonstrate outside American embassies, demanding that the provocateurs of hatred be investigated and brought to justice for callously endangering the lives of Americans and others. Thus far, demonstrations have been confined to Arab countries, but if they should spread to embassies in Europe and America, the message of Muslims should be coherent and firm: We believe in our right to protest peacefully outside the embassies of the citizens who intentionally provoke hatred and insult. It is not that we are not sophisticated enough to understand the nuances of democracy and freedom of speech, but that we insist that freedom of expression be firmly and unconditionally separated from the incitement of hatred and violence. Freedom of expression is not the same as inciting hate crimes.
The disintegration of human values
Yet it should also be noted that violent reaction to the bizarre film, thus far, has been confined to Egypt and Libya. There have been no incidents in Europe and America and this is despite the increasingly negative treatment of Muslims on both continents. For example, Amnesty International’s report Choice and Prejudice released in April 2012 focuses on the rise of discrimination against Muslims in Europe, concluding that right-wing political parties play on citizens' fears by openly espousing Islam as a violent theology. The same could be said for the small band of radicals and hooligans who released Innocence of Muslims. The Council of Europe Commissioner on Human Rights, whom the Amnesty report quotes, observes:
“European countries appear to face another crisis beyond budget deficits – the disintegration of human values. One symptom is the increasing expression of intolerance towards Muslims. Opinion polls in several European countries reflect fear, suspicion and negative opinions of Muslims and Islamic culture. These Islamophobic prejudices are combined with racist attitudes – directed not least against people originating from Turkey, Arab countries and South Asia. Muslims with this background are discriminated [against] in the labour market and the education system in a number of European countries.”
Similar accusations have occurred in the United States where the FBI documents that hate crimes against Muslims spiked 50% in 2010, the last year for which FBI statistics are available. A 2010 Washington Post-ABC news poll showed nearly half of Americans held an unfavorable view of Islam and a 2010 Time magazine poll found 28 percent of voters do not think Muslims should sit on the US Supreme Court, while almost one-third of the country thinks that followers of Islam should be barred from running for president. The Center for American Progress report Fear Inc., The Roots of the Islamophobia Network in America, shows that, “the message of religious intolerance against American Muslims is being perpetrated by a small, tightly knit group of individuals sustained by money from a clutch of key foundations, and their misinformation campaign is being directed to millions of Americans through effective advocates, media partners, and grassroots organizing”. This anti-Islam rhetoric has been connected to violence before, for example Anders Breivik, who murdered more than 70 people in Norway, cited anti-Islam bloggers numerous times in his manifesto. In 2010 President Obama himself recognized that Pastor Jones’ Quran burning had the dangerous potential to incite violence when he made his direct television appeal as quoted above.
So, let us take a reasoned approach and frame this issue for what it is. This is not a debate about “blasphemy”, about freedom of expression; this is a debate about a carefully orchestrated provocation, hate crimes and murder. As Muslims, let us not only apologize for violence committed in the name of our faith, but also call loud and clear for accountability for all the actors involved – both the provocateurs and the trigger hand.