Sunday, September 16, 2012

Barbarians at the gate

“Behead all those who insult the prophet” is a curiously worded slogan. It says Mohammed is a figure so holy that even the mildest rebuke should be greeted by severing that person’s arteries at the throat.  It is a common punishment for trivial matters in hard-line Wahhabist regimes such as Saudi Arabia.  One such trivial matter lies behind the latest calls for such barbarism, a "clumsily overdubbed and haphazardly-edited” low budget film with no production values.  Its US-Egyptian maker Nakoula Bassely Nakoula could well be the Ed Wood of the 21st century. But because his film contains “insults to the prophet”,  it is capable of causing world-wide riots, multiple deaths including a US ambassador  and the banning of youtube in Afghanistan. 

Yesterday's protest in Sydney was the first Australian attempt to normalise such an extreme response. It was a deliberate affront to the norms of western culture and the live and let live philosophy of multiculturalism. Saturday shoppers on Pitt Street would have been bewildered to reads signs that told them  "Our dead are in paradise, your dead are in hell''.  It was so far outside their life experience as to be surreal. But they would have noticed the anger was real enough.

It was worse in other parts of the world where protesters were taking active steps to behead the insulters. Urged on by opportunist Salafi political leaders they lashed out at whatever target was convenient. But it was contrived.  In Libya and Egypt, it was Al Qaeda-affiliated groups preaching to the disaffecting. In Yemen, it was former president Salah undermining the current administration. And behind the scenes across the region it was Iran flexing its muscles.  There is no god but God and Muhammad is his prophet, but it was politicians pulling the strings.

As usual, the West had no idea how to react. The protests were cloaked in wrath so righteous, it dared not be criticised. Far easier to criticise the target of the wrath, as western countries did in the past, blaming Salman Rushdie or the Danish cartoons for antagonising Muslims, not the protesters themselves for their over-the-top response or their leaders for their cynical manipulations. It is easier to retreat into pious homilies that attack the proximate rather than political causes. Then-US president George HW Bush refused to condemn the fatwa on Salman Rushdie with a non-committal “no American interests are involved” while the British deplored his fight with a great religion.

Now the American can’t look away any longer when a work of no artistic value causes international murder and mayhem. Nakoula had every right to make a film that took Mohammed’s life to pieces and portrayed him as a flawed man, not as a flawless “prophet”.  If that was humiliating and offensive to some, then so be it. That is their problem and they could have dealt with it by ignoring it. But the Innocence of Muslims is not only a rubbish film, it is not even honest rubbish. Nakoula lied to his cast and crew about its intentions .   

Under an assumed name of Sam Bacile, Nakoula pretended he was making a “historical desert drama” called Desert Warriors.  His lead character was Master George, a philanderer and husband of multiple wives, one as young as seven. The references to Mohammed and Islam were thrown in later in the absurdly bad editing process. When one of the cast rang Bacile/Nakoula to talk about his deception, he replied, “I'm tired of radical Islamists killing each other. Let other actors know it's not their fault.”

Nakoula may have wanted to light a flame but it was up to others to burn the house down with it. Former Iranian Hezbollah leader Massoud Dehnamaki gives a clue as to how others would use the spark. Dehnamaki told the Daily Beast it was up to the US to “prove” it was not involved  The US government had to prosecute the filmmakers, he said. “Westerners see their own freedom in the ability to insult others,” Dehnamaki said. “They see freedom as a one-way freeway that moves in the direction of their demands. They don’t respect other people’s beliefs.”  

And indeed there were pictures in the news today of Nakoula being arrested. Though it was not well explained by media, his crime was not blasphemy or even deception but simply a breach of probation conditions. When he was done for a fraud crime in 2010, Nakoula was not allowed a computer or the Internet without permission for five years.  

But there is no crime in his film, except against taste. It was not as the White House said  “reprehensible and disgusting”, but the response was. Bad films don’t kill people, people kill people. No one wants to take the side of a convicted fraudster who deceived his crew and set out to deliberately offend with a ham-fisted film.  But that is what we must do.

Freedom is not a one-way freeway as Dehnamaki calls it. It is an 18th century enlightenment value that understands complex societies need a certain tolerance of difference to survive.  No longer tied to the dictatorial value-system of any one church, some leeway of live and let live is needed to ensure a peaceful life.  It is why blasphemy was mostly wiped off the books in the west in the 20th century but it is also why it is creeping back in the 21st in the form of legislated race hate crimes.  
It makes it harder to get criticism into the public domain while doing nothing to address the root cause of the hatred.  And it is the thin edge of the wedge. There are more serious works than Nakoula's at stake. Only this week, British television canned a serious historical program that casts doubt on the authenticity of Muslim traditions. Filmmaker Tom Holland said his "Islam: The Untold Story" was a “a legitimate subject of historical inquiry”. But it was cancelled on “security advice”. British audiences should slam Channel Four’s cowardice and demand they show it. This is not war of civilisations, it is test of strength.  We must stand up for free speech. Unless we are happy for western countries to imitate the Saudis, those who demand beheading need to be disarmed. 

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