The hateful piece of propaganda about the Prophet Muhammad, known as “Innocence of Muslims” continues to have repercussions around the world, due to the attacks on the US Embassy in Libya and Egypt. There is no mistaking the offensive nature of the film, as it accusing the Prophet of having been a womanizer, a fool, a sexual pervert, and a homosexual (though that last “insult” plays into homophobia). There is also no mistaking the fact that the murder of the four Americans, including Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens is cruel and barbaric by any measure.
Here are twelve points to keep in mind, in an attempt to bring some sanity to a controversy that has already generated far more heat than light:
1) This is not an issue of Freedom of Speech vs. religious sensitivity.
Every time that there is an offensive piece written to target Muslim sensitivities, there is the temptation to cast it as an issue of “freedom of speech”, held to be absolute, vs. the religious sensitivity of Muslims. That framework is either unhelpful or at best only partially helpful. In reality, pieces like the “Innocence of Muslims” are best classified as hate speech, as they seem to be of the same genre as anti-Semitic films of the 1930’s or Birth of A Nation KKK movies.
The issue of freedom of speech vs. religious sensitivity also misses the point because it assumes—falsely—that Muslims are only capable of religious sensitivity. Muslims, whether in relatively free societies like Turkey or under more oppressive regimes like Iran and Saudi Arabia have rich traditions of filmmaking, political cartoons, and satire. Many journalists and satirists in these countries are actually paying a price for their upholding of freedom of speech. Those are the people that are truly deserving of the spotlight, not the hate propaganda producers.
2) Al-Qaeda, not Libyans, is behind the murder of the US ambassador
The assassination of the US ambassador is not the work of the Libyan people, or religious groups, but rather the operation of al-Qaeda. The overlapping timing with the anniversary of 9/11 lends credit to this being an al-Qaeda plot that was pre-planned. So does the heavy amount of weaponry carried to the assault on the US compound.
3) The Libyan authorities and religious scholars have condemned this attack.
The Libyan President condemned the attacks in clear and unequivocal terms:
Libyan President Mohamed Magariaf stated:
"We refuse that our nation's lands be used for cowardice and revengeful acts. It is not a victory for God's Sharia or his prophet for such disgusting acts to take place….We apologize to the United States, the people of America, and the entire world. We and the American government are standing on the same side, we stand on the same side against outlaws."
4) The Libyan people have demonstrated against the assassination of the ambassador.
This is one of the more underreported aspects of this crisis so far, the fact that Libyan people’s own voice has not been heard from in the Western press. Hopefully these pictures will go some ways towards addressing that. (there are a few endearing spelling mistakes, like “Profit” for “Prophet”; “Pehavior” for “behavior”).
5) The producers of the film openly admit to being Islam-haters.
The person originally identified as the producer, "Sam Bacile", is a shadowy, fictional figure. Whoever the producer is, he has now gone into hiding, having achieving his insidious aim of throwing fuel on the flame.
If the initial reports on Wall St. Journal and the Guardian were to be believed, the “film” is produced by an Israeli real estate agent based in California who admits his hatred for Islam by confessing his view that “Islam is a cancer.” Bacile reported to the Associated Press that he raised 5 million dollars reportedly from “100 American Jews.” There is great reason to be suspicious about almost every aspect of the above. In fact, the attribution of the "film"'s funding to "100 American Jews" may well be a bit of misdirection on behalf of the producer, an exercise in using anti-Semitism to cover his own tracks.
The BBC reports: “But extensive efforts by BBC reporters to trace Mr Bacile - through his credentials as a filmmaker or a real-estate agent - have so far proved fruitless.” There are no known internet references to Sam Bacile except for the youtube account that was used to upload the “film.”
Furthermore, “Sam Bacile” doesn’t seem to be the name of any recognized California real estate personality.
The latest report by the AP suggest that “Sam Bacile” is in fact a fabricated identity by an American Coptic extremist, Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, who concocted the story of the Israeli real estate/filmmaker persona. “Bacile”, might in fact be an alternate spelling of his own middle name, Basseley.
Nakoula is a convicted con-artist, who has gone to jail for financial fraud. You can see the United States Court District court documents here. He had invented 13 fictitious identities, including "P.J. Tobacco."
There are also reports that tie the shadowy producer to a “Steve Klein”, who seems to be affiliated with a few Islamophobic groups and neo-Confederate rightwing militia, as well as endorsing anti-Mormon, anti-immigrant, anti-gay, and anti-Catholic policies. He is also affiliated with the same network of Islamophobes such as Robert Spencer and Daniel Pipes that inspired the Norwegian terrorist Anders Behring Breivik.
Klein is also affiliated with Kaweah, which was identified as a hate group by Southern Poverty Law Center.
6) The producer—whoever he is—has the right to produce his propaganda, even if it is hateful speech.
However, we do not have the obligation to provide him with a podium by offering him the very media access that he (like many other extremists) craves. He confesses that he showed the film to a mostly empty movie theater in Hollywood over the summer. This is a calculated and manipulated campaign to generate publicity by appealing to the most hateful of people in every faith community.
7) The distribution of the film has benefited from Terry Jones, yes, the same idiotic Qur’an-burning pastor in Florida of whom the President Obama and General Petraeus have said that his reckless and hateful actions are endangering the lives of American citizens.
8) The youtube “film” was picked up by a fringe group of Coptic radicals. Copts are indigenous Egyptian Christians who have at times had a tense relationship with the Muslim majority, although the majority of the Copts supported the overthrow of Mubarak during the Arab Spring uprisings in Egypt. Mainstream Coptic organizations in Egypt have already condemned this movie, and the “film” does not represent the views of Copts.
9) American Muslim organizations have uniformly condemned the assassination of the American Ambassador.
This includes Council for American Islamic Relation ; Islamic Society of North America; and Islamic Circle of North America.
10) This violent response to assaults on the dignity of the Prophet is not the example of the Prophet himself.
Simply put, this is not What Muhammad Would Do.
The Prophet Muhammad himself was repeatedly mocked, cursed, and even stoned during his life. As I documented in my book, Memories of Muhammad, his enemies even paid to have children stone him, yet Muhammad refused to curse enemies, as he was sent as a “mercy to all the worlds” according to the words of the Qur’an.
Furthermore, the Qur’an lays out an ethical standard for how one is to respond to evil, and the command is clear: “Repel evil with something that is better, lovelier.” It’s moments that like that people of faith, of all faith, any faith, including the Islamic faith, have to reach deep into their hearts and live out the true meanings of their creeds.
As the American Muslim playwright Wajahat Ali said:
“By choosing violence as a response, the embassy attackers ironically & tragically betray the legacy, spirit & wisdom of the Prophet Muhammad - he who was repeatedly insulted, mocked, and pelted with trash and stones but chose to reply with patient etiquette and generosity. Extremism begets extremism. This tragedy in Libya calls for moderation & reconciliation. Voices of calm, understanding & peace must now rise and be heard. #benghazi”
11) The producers of the film lied to their actors and crew about the content of the film.
The crew of the film did not know that this was an anti-Muhammad film. The producers went back and dubbed in the anti-Muhammad message into it post-production.
In other words, the deception about the “film” is not just about the funders and producers, they even deceived the actors in the “film.” See interview with one of the actresses here.
12) We have a choice how to respond.
It is up to us, to each of us, to decide which path to pursue: each of us can choose to pursue the path of the extremists who funded the film, the extremists that spread the “film,” or the path of the extremists that reacted to the “film” with violence.
Or, we can respond to these catastrophes the way that President Obama reacted to the anniversary of 9/11 by reminding us that our fates are bound up together. Obama said: “There's no them and us - it's just us”
As Dr. King reminded us, we are caught up in an inescapable network of mutuality.
We can find examples of this same ethical commitment in the Muslim community, such as the pictures of the courageous Libyans who shared their humanity, their grief, and their hearts with Americans. It is the pictures of these Libyans that grace this essay.
(This blogpost was edited to reflect current information on this issue.)