I am observing the current anti-American protests in the Middle East with a mixture of disgust and resignation. It wasn't very long ago that I watched with some amazement as the "Arab Spring" swept away one dictator after another. I was a little skeptical about where that would all end up, but on balance, hearing the words of those who were at the heads of the protests that later turned into revolutions, on balance I was encouraged to believe that a certain degree of modernity and enlightenment would characterize whatever came next.
Well… maybe not. I have railed on more than once in these electronic pages about the armies of the militantly ignorant who comprise a certain segment of our own nation, the ones whose extremist, chauvinistic interpretation of their religion, combined with crazy, paranoid notions about political conspiracies, enables them to deny even the most obvious facts that are not cognate with their worldview. But for the most part, their impact on the rest of us exhausts itself largely in voting for all the wrong policies for all the wrong reasons (in my view anyway). With very few exceptions, they generally don't turn violent. We have so far not seen mobs of right-wing Christian fundamentalists responding to the teaching of evolution in schools, or the "war on Christmas", or even South Park's sacrilegious depictions of Jesus by taking their grievances to the street in a smashing, burning, murdering rage.
But these days in North Africa, and increasingly in other places like Pakistan, Afghanistan, Malaysia or Indonesia, we are seeing just that sort of thing happening in response to a stupid film. In fact, it's not even a whole film, it's just a poorly edited "trailer" of a film with the peculiar tile The Innocence of Muslims that apparently few people if any have ever seen in its full length. I'm not going to link to it here, since it seems to be one of those things that is regularly posted on YouTube, taken down, and then reposted under a different URL, so any link I publish here may be obsolete by the time you read this—just go to YouTube and search for it. You can also find it (if the link is still valid) on this page from The Atlantic that gives a chronology of events leading up to the current violence.
The film (or trailer) is undeniably gratuitously insulting to Muslims, depicting the prophet Mohammed as a lecherous, greedy, murderous pervert. But it's also hilariously badly made and it's absurd to think that without its current news-related notoriety, more than a handful of people would even be aware of its existence. But clearly there is no shortage of backward, ignorant people in the Muslim world who are ready to go on a murderous rampage over even the rumor that their religion has somehow been insulted. Now, I know all about the colonial history of the region, and I know that American concepts of free speech are foreign to these people, and I know that their religion is an integral part of their lives and culture, and I know I'm applying my western notions of morality to a non-western culture, and all those other politically correct reasons why I should be somehow understanding and tolerant of the current violence. But dammit, they're burning and killing and destroying over a stupid movie, which I am sure that 99% of the people involved in the rioting have never seen anyway. A few years ago we saw the same thing happening over cartoons, fer crissakes. How can this be excused by any standard? It can only be condemned.
|Dividends of the Revolution|
But this cannot be condemned without also taking into account that as primitive as the response may be, it's still a response to a deliberate and targeted provocation. The film itself was reportedly made by one Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, an Egyptian Coptic Christian (and convicted felon) who lives in the US. From there, it was picked up by another US-resident Egyptian Copt named Morris Sadek and posted with an Arabic translation on YouTube. Sadek apparently alerted various Egyptian jounalists to the post, while at the same time our old friend Terry Jones, the infamous Koran-burning fundamentalist pastor, attempted (pretty unsuccessfully) to promote the film in the US. These guys all set out with nothing more on their minds than to provoke Muslims.
Nakoula and Sadek surely knew that if they could get Egyptian Muslims to somehow become aware of their film, the response would be something along the lines of what we are seeing now. (Eventually they did find the conduit they were looking for, an Egyptian TV pundit who, as part of his own twisted agenda, broadcast part of the trailer and set in motion the events we are now following.) They are no better than the rioting mobs. Say what you will about freedom of speech, there's no doubt in my mind that they have blood on their hands. As far as I'm concerned, to argue otherwise would be akin to saying, "It's not my fault that someone left that powder keg lying around. I just lit the fuse."
What we have is an entire cycle of idiots, all feeding off each other in a kind of perverse symbiosis. We have the idiot who invested time and money in this deliberately insulting piece of trash; the idiots who translated and promoted it; the idiots who communicated its existence to a wider audience and then the multitude of idiots who reacted with violence. The idiots at the beginning of the chain, or others like them, will take the response of the mob as justification to retaliate by generating the next provocation. And thus will the cycle continue.
|Sowing the Wind|
What will break the cycle? The best place to be start would be with the idiots at the beginning of it. But I'm pessimistic here. Publicity-hungry provocateurs like Terry Jones are the tip of the iceberg in this country; below the surface lies a vast mass of people who are not activists but who have bought into the whole Muslims-want-to-take-over-our-whole-society paranoia machine. Yes, I know that Muslims really did kill thousands of people on 9-11-01 on what they considered to be a specifically Muslim holy mission. But to believe that all Muslims in this country are part of some kind of secret conspiracy to subvert our way of life, introduce Sharia law and eventually take over completely—well, it reminds me of some darker periods in the history of my own tribe that were the result of similar thinking.
|Reaping the Whirlwind|
There is a whole Muslim-bashing industry that seems to be growing up in this country. Maybe I'm the one who is out of step when I'm shocked to read about something like Pat Robertson's suggestion to a caller to his TV show that he become a Muslim so he can beat his wife. It's not the words themselves that shock me; it's the way that ol' Pat can feel comfortable making a casual joke like this on TV. This was a guy who wanted to be president, remember? As in president of the whole USA, not just the evangelical Christian part. With a sense of humor like this, I'm sure that Pat would have felt perfectly at home in Berlin in 1938.
Given that the idiots at the beginning of the cycle seem to have at least some constituency for their views within the larger population, I don't think that just asking them nicely to knock it off is going to make a difference, even if the request comes from someone like Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. I am sure that the First Amendment precludes any sort of prosecution. So here's my suggestion: let's take up a collection. Let's collect enough money to send Nakoula, Sadek, Jones and a few of their pals on a world tour to promote their film. They can hold screenings and then take questions from the audience. The tour will start in Rabat and continue eastward through Algiers, Tunis, Tripoli, Cairo, Amman, Baghdad, Riyadh, Karachi, Kabul… Armed with the courage of their convictions, let them take their case directly to the people they have their beef with and leave the rest of us out of it.