Moving right along, from the pathetic (Mitt Romney’s botched launch of a class war against the “47 percent”) to the ridiculous yet tragic:
While prediction of the consequences of any action doesn’t rank as an exact science, Mark Basseley Youssef (his current legal name) surely anticipated that an uproar in the Middle East would result from the release of his trailer for a purported feature-length movie that he wrote and produced, Innocence of Muslims. Indeed, that was unquestionably his intention: The film portrays Islam as an inauthentic religion and the prophet Muhammad as a fool, a con man, a philanderer, a pedophile, a homosexual, and a murderer.
Having watched the entirety of the 14-minute trailer posted at YouTube, both the English-language and Arabic-dubbed versions, I can say with confidence that if you do the same (recommended only to masochists and/or those who feel the need to base opinion on direct experience) you’ll rate it as one of the worst cinematic productions of all time. Imagine a camp parody of King of Kings directed by a young John Waters lacking any sense of humor, with negligible production values, inept lip-synching, a cast of tens but devoid of the inimitable spark that Divine brought to featured roles, and you’ll get within whiffing distance of the profound awfulness of this extravaganza.
The Guardian (UK) proclaims that it represents “a dark demonstration of the power of film.” What overwrought bullshit. Most of the rioters around the world, by their own admission, haven’t seen the trailer, not even the Arab-language version. They’ve responded to reports of something that was filmed. That’s a dark demonstration of the power of second-hand report, not the power of film.
Nonetheless, the mass hysteria this trailer has provoked in the Muslim world concerns images on several levels. First, of course, there’s the undeniable fact of the trailer itself as a series of images. Second, there are the negative images of Islam and Muhammad as portrayed in the trailer. Third, there’s the prohibition in Islam against any visual portrayal of the prophet.
For those reasons, the very existence of this real film trailer (and the still-unseen feature-length film it supposedly promotes) deliberately offends the sensibilities of observant Muslims on both counts. Yet these cobbled-together extracts prove so dreadfully tedious, amateurish, and unpersuasive that the trailer would have remained obscure, and utterly ineffectual in its intended critique of Islam, had dissemination of and incendiary commentary on it by Islamists not brought it to the attention of the faithful in the Middle East and elsewhere.
So no, I can’t envisage myself or anyone else watching the whole thing, if it exists (more on that next time), even if offered free on YouTube or Hulu. Much less can I imagine crowds of young westerners costumed in faux-Middle Eastern garb ponying up for midnight showings where they recite all the lines by heart, à la Rocky Horror Picture Show and Little Shop of Horrors. In short, no widespread distribution or long life as a camp cult classic for this turkey.
Safe to say that the Muslim firestorm this touched off in the Middle East and elsewhere has led millions more Muslim and non-Muslim eyeballs to Youssef’s opus than would ever have viewed it otherwise. Thus the rioters in (so far, a partial list) Libya, Tunisia, Yemen, Sudan, Lebanon, Pakistan, Qatar, Kuwait, Egypt, Morocco, Iran, Iraq, Israel, the Palestinian territories, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Crimea, North Caucasus, and Australia have served as superbly effective publicists for the unpersuasive bit of nonsense they claim has insulted them mortally. Thereby they’ve validated the film’s premises, reinforcing a global negative perception of Islam-as-amok-thuggery vastly more potent and convincing than the tepid parody embedded in Youssef’s creaky smoker.
This brings us to that divide where East is east, West is West, and they can’t sit down over coffee. Nor does the divergence depend solely on geography. Martin Scorsese made a controversial film about the life and death of Jesus, The Last Temptation of Christ, and while it brought out some picketers and prompted some boycotts, only once, in France, did fundamentalist Christians resort to violence as a response to it. Arabs funded a 41-part serial with high production values called A Knight Without a Horse, a serialized version of the notorious anti-Semitic screed The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, circulating it throughout the Middle East and elsewhere via mainstream movie houses and television networks, without Jews attacking Arab consulates or slaughtering random Arabs or other goyem anywhere.
Mel Gibson made The Passion of the Christ, his anti-Semitic version of the crucifixion of Jesus, without Jews storming his Hollywood mansion screaming “Death to Australia!” Andres Serrano got U.S. politicians so riled up with “Piss Christ” that they defunded divisions of the National Endowment for the Arts, and someone in Australia defaced a print of it, but no mobs ran murderously through the streets; I don’t recall any accounts of even a single punch getting thrown over it.
On the secular level, in a Hamas-sponsored TV production for Palestinian children a puppet stabbed U.S. President George W. Bush to death in revenge for American and Israeli actions, and turned the White House into a mosque, yet somehow Americans refrained from terminating rational discussion of a separate Palestinian state. And Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran’s president, denies the Holocaust and Israel’s very right to exist, both of which provocations have failed to touch off bonfires on the boulevards and the trashing of Iranian-owned businesses here. Somehow, in short, non-Muslims exercise a degree of self-control that Muslims apparently lack.
The religious delirium touched off by Youssef’s amateurish junk seems, by any rational standard here in the west, so disproportionate as to border on the incomprehensible and deranged. With rare exceptions, followers of the Judeo-Christian tradition respond to blasphemy and apostasy within the limits of the secular law. That doesn’t hold true for Muslims. What’s a rarity with the former is a commonplace with the latter.
I think it unlikely that Christians and Jews are any less devout than Muslims, or hold their prophets and other sacred figures less closely to their hearts. So something else must explain the difference in behavior when the believers in these faiths feel affronted, the infrequency of mob violence as a response. Of course, non-Muslims don’t have as many primitive priests whipping them into murderous frenzies, but I suspect there’s more to it, though just what I can’t say.
This series of events proves that, when it comes to Islam, a marginal and inept provocateur anywhere in the world, operating on a modest budget, can set off an international conflagration using contemporary imaging techonology, social media, and the internet. It demonstrates further that — short of introducing censorious legislation that would undo basic democratic principles in order to protect the religious sensitivities of true believers, and indeed even if we did so — we can’t prevent that from happening, given the reach of present-day communications systems and electronic access to information.
It also shows how a project such as this film can affect not only the geopolitical situation broadly but the U.S. presidential election specifically. In attacking President Obama for his handling of this crisis in its early hours, Mitt Romney implied that somehow this volatile situation would have proved more manageable by someone less “apologetic” for the U.S. than Obama (namely him), with the Romney campaign actually asserting that this wouldn’t have happened with Romney in the Oval Office. The electorate wasn’t buying that line; given the dimensions to which this has swelled, clearly that’s a shovelful of horse hockey, as Colonel Sherman T. Potter of M.A.S.H. would say. Once that idiotic video hit YouTube the fat was in the fire; no one could have prevented or controlled the outcome.
But Romney’s bluster had a darker, covert purpose: covering his own ass by diverting attention from his culpability. As would gradually become known over the next weeks, this propaganda film was entirely sponsored and produced by elements of the wingnut anti-Islamist evangelical Christian right in the U.S., which of course is closely linked to the lunatic fringe of the Republic Party, to both of which Romney and his running mate Paul Ryan suck up like bawling calves to a cow’s udder. Those implicated here include:
• Steve Klein, consultant on the film, “a former Marine and longtime religious-right activist who has helped train paramilitary militias at a California church. . . . founder of Courageous Christians United, which conducts protests outside abortion clinics, Mormon temples and mosques.” Klein, who’s 62, also hosts a one-hour talk show, “Wake Up, America,” for the broadcasting outlet of Media for Christ, a conservative nonprofit based in Duarte, Calif., east of Pasadena.
• Media for Christ, also in Duarte, which took out the permit for the shooting of the film. “It was a single day permit – for Aug. 18, 2011 – and is filed with Los Angeles County under permit number F00043012,” according to Gloria Goodale’s September 13 story in the Christian Science Monitor. Media for Christ is headed by Coptic Christian extremist Joseph Nassralla Abdelmasih.
• The Way satellite TV channel, also in Duarte, Calif., which “creates evangelical Christian programming that beams across the Arabic-speaking world.” Some scenes in the film were reportedly filmed on their property.
• Islamophobic blogger Pamela Geller, who co-hosted anti-Muslim demonstrations with Joseph Nassralla Abdelmasih, head of Media For Christ, and also posted on her blog Atlas Shrugs a fundraising appeal for “A Movie about Muhammad” on February 28, 2012. (Coincidence? You decide.)
• Koran-burning Florida pastor Terry Jones, who has defended and promoted the film, and was banned from entry into Germany by that country’s Interior Ministry on September 16. Jones had accepted an invitation from the fringe right-wing party Bürgerbewegung Pro Deutschland (Civil Movement Pro Germany) to attend a Berlin screening of Innocence of Muslims.
• And other darlings of the Christian right.
In short, by dint of their close association with their base, Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan bear a considerable degree of responsibility for the conflagrations touched off by this film, including the one that took the life of Ambassador Christopher J. Stevens. Time to put them on the hook for that and watch them try to wriggle off. Today, Sunday, September 30, Mormons around the world will join in an unofficial day of fasting and prayer that Mitt Romney will “be blessed in the [presidential] debates,” the result of a grass-roots campaign initiated by Mormon Mona Williams of Utah. They should petition their deity to make sure no one connects the dots on this and holds Romney’s feet to the fire until he responds between now and Election Day.
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This post supported by a donation from the Estate of Lyle Bongé.