Narratives give definition and structure to our stories, both in fiction and in life; they can also deceive us and teach us false truths. An object lesson in wariness is unfolding right now. According to news reports, protestors yesterday have attacked U.S. embassies in Egypt and Libya. In Benghazi, an American ambassador and at least three others were murdered. In Cairo, the U.S. flag was torn to shreds and replaced with a flag with the traditional Muslim prayer, “There is no God but Allah, and Muhammed is his prophet.” So far, these facts appear to be undisputed. What is more provocative (and more relevant to this blog) is that a causal link has been made between these attacks and a film made by an Israeli-American filmmaker. The film is ironically titled The Innocence of Muslims, and it is a broadside against Islam.
When I say “broadside,” I mean an indescribably awful, incompetent piece of garbage that is only eclipsed in its simpleminded vileness by, well, the propaganda of the jihadists themselves. I’ve watched several clips. I only recommend that you do the same if you want to experience that rare autonomic response that is your body’s attempt to combine laughter and nausea. I’m not kidding: it’s terrible on every conceivable level. If I were to empathize with the protestors’ reaction on a purely aesthetic level, I surely could. They weren’t reacting to the film’s pure incompetence; they were reacting to the fact that it attacks their religion and, perhaps more significantly, its founder, the prophet Muhammed. For this, they invaded U.S. establishments, desecrated our symbol, and murdered four of our citizens.
At least, that’s the narrative. First, let’s look at an AP article supporting it.
An Israeli filmmaker based in California went into hiding after a YouTube trailer of his movie attacking Islam’s prophet Muhammad sparked angry assaults by ultra-conservative Muslims on U.S. missions in Egypt and Libya. The U.S. ambassador to Libya and three American members of his staff were killed.
The article reports as fact that a trailer for Innocence of Muslims “sparked” the attacks by radical Muslims. A minor correction is already necessary. A Reuters article made mention of an Egyptian Christian who assaulted the Egyptian embassy because he wanted to show solidarity with his fellow people of faith. Considering that these attacks happened yesterday, I don’t think it’s terribly responsible to assign blame entirely to one group, when it appears that (in Cairo, at least) a melange of angry people participated in the attack — not just right-wing Muslims. Which brings up the question of just how many of those that were Muslims were “ultra-conservative.”
The filmmaker in question, Sam Bacile, says many offensive things throughout his article, including (quite succinctly) that “Islam is a cancer, period.” At least we know where he stands. What particularly struck me, though, was the sentence in which Bacile was quoted:
“Islam is a cancer, period,” he said repeatedly, his solemn voice thickly accented.
“His solemn voice thickly accented”? How was this detail relevant to the substance of the article? To me, all it does is emphasize his Otherness. As vile as his views and film might be, shouldn’t denigrating those views and his film be adequate? Is it also necessary to imply that he’s Not Really American?
Muslims find it offensive to depict Muhammad in any manner, let alone insult the prophet. A Danish newspaper’s 2005 publication of 12 caricatures of the prophet triggered riots in many Muslim countries.
Hopefully most Americans don’t need to be reminded that depicting the prophet in any way is considered to be offensive, but I realize that this reminder is probably necessary. What interests me here is that the 2005 riots are described as being “triggered” by the caricatures. A causal link is once against reported as fact.
These are mere excerpts from a longer article, so please do read the entire thing to get the full context. I’d like to construct a counter-narrative of my own, though. In my narrative, an inept and hateful filmmaker is put on the defensive for allegedly causing (“sparking,” “triggering,” if you prefer) the deaths of four Americans. It is interesting to me how often isolated elements of our culture — such as the Joker in the Colorado Dark Knight Rises shooting a couple months ago — are tied so unequivocally to heinous acts. Looking for answers in a larger context is both sensible and wise, yet I think there’s a danger in overlooking the agency of those who actually perpetrate the actions under consideration, as well as a danger in overlooking alternative contextual factors. If we follow the narrative of Mohajer’s article, an Israeli filmmaker is responsible for the actions of Muslims who killed four Americans. This is an incredibly facile and problematic narrative, for reasons I’ve already hinted at.
First, emphasizing the Jewishness of the filmmaker (“thickly accented” voice) creates a distance between the non-Jewish majority of the readership and identifies the Israeli as an Other.
Second, it gives that Jew an inordinate amount of power over Muslims, as if a single Jew can manipulate Muslims in two separate countries into rioting, yet the entire nation of Israel can’t manage to pacify its own neighbors into refraining from lobbing rockets into nearby cities. Assigning that much power to the Other creates a sense that the Jewish Other must be controlled somehow, or poses as latent a danger as the Muslims who stormed the embassies. I hesitate to imply that there’s an anti-Semitic undercurrent to it, but I think that anti-Semites could easily seize upon this narrative for their own uses.
Third, not everyone in those crowds was Muslims, and those that were are probably aligned with various political and religious subgroups within the Muslim community. Lumping them all together under the “ultra-conservative” banner distorts the contingencies and nuances that inevitably play a part in any conflagration, not to mention ignoring the sheer, terrifying simplicity of opportunism inherent in mob violence.
Fourth, there’s the issue of responsibility. Though the film trailer may have been used as a justification for why these attacks happened, how is it that this one trailer from a small-budgeted, independent filmmaker (and a quite obviously bad one at that) could spark riots, as opposed to any number of other, more material considerations that have yet to be examined? As pretexts go, stranger things have happened, but it’s still pretty flimsy.
What a lot of people have already realized is that yesterday was the eleventh anniversary of 9/11. The United States has already made several disastrous foreign policy decisions in the decade since Islamic terrorists murdered thousands on our soil, and despite the current president’s slightly-more-conciliatory demeanor toward the world nations, the basic stance of the country is one of “yippie-ki-yay-motherf@#&er!”
By the same token, for all the legitimate political concerns of sovereignty on the part of nations in the Middle East, it remains a fact that Islamic terrorists don’t recruit purely on the basis of America’s swinging-dick attitude toward diplomatic relations. They recruit based upon a radical interpretation of the Koran that demands its followers to wage a holy war on anyone and everyone who refuses to convert to Islam. While ideological demagogues in the U.S. have propped up the tragedy of 9/11 to further their own hegemonic interests, the ideological demagogues of the Islam jihad have propped up 9/11 as a symbolic promise of their eventually victory over the democratic nations of the world. For Americans, 9/11 reminds us of what he lost, and the perpetual debate over what freedom really means to us; for jihadists, it represents what they want to do to anyone who opposes their rigid hermeneutic blasphemy.
I think it’s fair to hypothesize that these embassy attacks would have happened with or without the assistance of Bacile. It is not a coincidence that this all happened on the anniversary of 9/11. To place Bacile in the context of the tension between Western democracy, Muslim concerns about religious intolerance, and the efficacy of jihadist propaganda is necessary and fair. For his bigotry and artistic ineptitude, he should be castigated. To single him out for censure, though, is to ignore the larger context. Arts and entertainment are a tremendous part of culture, but politics and culture exist in a constant dialogue. I don’t doubt for a moment that elements of Americanism at home and abroad have only fomented anti-American sentiment and abetted the politics of those whose own bigotry and hatred is directed — perhaps for the sake of narrative convenience — at the U.S.
At the same time, I cannot think of a recent instance in which Americans of any religious or political stripe have rioted on that level in direct response to a very specific cultural artifact. To political and economic events, sure. The Tea Party and Occupy movements are testimony to the engagement on the part of the radicalized citizenry with the institutions and practices that underly our lives. But you don’t see Democrats assaulting the Republican headquarters over 2016: Obama’s America. Nor did you see Republicans assaulting the Democratic HQ over Fahrenheit 9/11. Probably the most bilious protestors we have are the members of the Westboro church, who picket the funerals of fallen soldiers holding signs that say things like “God hates fags.” (Because, don’t ya know, God is punishing America for tolerating all those homer-sek-shuhls.)
All of this is to say that, in a nation in which civil liberties — despite the best efforts of our politicians and ideologues — are treasured, even our most virulent and radical protests are relatively peaceful. When cops pepper spray protestors or blow up flash grenades in their faces, we blanche. None of it is in response to movie trailers. And almost all of it is either organized for weeks or the result of tensions that have gone on for even longer. A single piece of media being the flashpoint is a narrative on convenience; it is, at best, an excuse, not a cause. Even the collapse of the World Trade Center is not really the cause or flashpoint of the so-called War on Terror; it is the pretext for political, cultural, and ideological tensions that were in play well before the first plane slammed into that building at 8:45 in the morning.
Political leaders in all of the nations involved in yesterday’s attacks were quite right to condemn the violence and to assert that there is no justification for it. What we must be wary of, however, is how easily these events can be manipulated into a false narrative of justification for whatever comes next. Even my summation of the context for yesterday’s assaults and 9/11 is an overly broad narrative with its own gaps and prejudices.
What I’m trying to highlight is how effortlessly we find scapegoats and excuses, and how much this does to obscure what is actually happening. Because narratives are central to the human experience, and because they proliferate across media, it is essential that we analyze, criticize, and understand both these narratives and the roles they play in the larger culture. In that respect, it is important to at least discuss Innocence of Muslims, its aesthetics and its goals, and to deconstruct it as necessary. It’s important to retain it as part of the context of yesterday’s attacks. It is utterly wrong, however, to identify it as the sole “spark” or “trigger” of what happened. Film is a powerful medium, but it does not answer for the consciences of individuals, and it certainly does not speak autonomously for or against the values of cultures. When viewing media in a cultural context, it’s important to be equally skeptical toward the construction of opponents’ narratives and our own. Even the analysis of that media forms its own kind of narrative, and the worst thing that could happen is to lose sight of historical circumstances in the search for truth — especially if the narrative stokes the fires of religious intolerance.☕