Innocence of Muslims, the shoddy production that recently unleashed waves of outrage throughout the Middle East and the Muslim world, was, mildly put, an insult directed at Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

Whether in form, language, or content, the film made a mockery of basic standards of human decency, good taste, artistic subtlety and historical discernment. Its crassness was an affront to its subject matter, its intended audience, those involved in its production, and the community (or communities) that the producers were assumed to represent – in this case American Copts and by association Christians, and even Christendom and the West in more general terms.

At best, the film in question was a collection of obscene stereotypes, crammed with breathtaking incompetence into a buffoonish production that even by the standards of the Arab world’s most offensive adaptations of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion – and other such anti-Semitic fixtures of Syrian, Hezbollah and Egyptian television – would have been deemed too clumsy and crude, even for captive Muslim audiences. No serious film critic, and not the most artless of amateurs, could have kept a straight face referring to this frivolous feature as a film – that is, of course, no one except those who went into frenzies of mayhem and murder this past week lambasting the film and its country of origin, most of them without even having seen it.

Without the angry mobs, that trivial production, like others of its kind, would have passed unnoticed, desiccated in Western pantheons of indignity, alongside other such samplings of jaundiced, primitive screed.

That being said, one would be hard pressed to label the Innocence of Muslims a form of hate speech; an “affront to Islam and monotheistic religions” that “ought to be criminalized by International Law and its perpetrators brought to justice,” as recently clamored Lebanon’s Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah. Ironically, Nasrallah, commands a powerful private militia that defies the Lebanese national army and flouts both Lebanon’s national prerogatives and international law.

Additionally, through a baneful mix of coercion, intimidation and violence, Nasrallah conducts himself as Iran’s satrap in the Levant, and has perfected to the hilt the art of offending others and denigrating their religious, national and cultural symbols. What’s more, Hezbollah’s private satellite television station Al-Manar (“The Beacon”), designated a “global terrorist entity” by the United States and banned in a number of countries, has normalized portrayal of the creeds and cultures of others as “Evil,” “Satan” and “Cancers” meriting eradication.

It is all the more farcical in this light that Nasrallah invoke international law to criminalize offenders of religion. Yet crudeness and indecency, obvious features of those who made the Innocence of Muslims, are character failings worthy of contempt, not a crime warranting Nasrallah’s righteous indignation, or the international community’s punishment. In point of fact, wouldn’t it be fair to expect those who wish to brandish (and have recourse to) international bodies to be, at a bare minimum, respectful of international law? Yet, if anything, Nasrallah’s bombast and bellicosity have for the past 20 years, and as a matter of principle and theology, impugned the will of the international community and willfully flouted international statutes. For the rest, Nasrallah might be better served familiarizing himself with the sanctity of freedom of expression, one of the hallmarks of international human rights law.

Indeed, one of the authors of Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was none other than the great Lebanese philosopher and jurist, Charles Malik, a compatriot of Nasrallah’s. Alas, Nasrallah’s ears appear to be less engaged than his mouth these days, and Lebanon’s humane past seems less of the exemplar (or “Beacon”) to him than its belligerent, militarized present.

Otherwise, Malik might have revealed to his petulant junior that Man’s freedom to criticize, even lampoon, religious, political and cultural symbols is a basic tenet of human rights; that without this freedom to offend, Man would still be languishing in the dark ages paralyzed by superstitions and caged in servitude to sorcerers, soothsayers and witch doctors. Would someone dare remind Lebanon’s hallowed Sayyid in which century we live? In the end, the catalyst in these latest Middle Eastern convulsions was a risible, primitive, bigoted and willfully incendiary homevideo.

But the Innocence of Muslims was hardly the kind of catalyst warranting the intensity of anger and the span of violence it spawned – at least not in civilized company where mores are offended as a matter of principle, and where Man’s humanity and humanism are tested daily.

In a Christian context, the Innocence of Muslims might have been placed in the same category as the 1987 Piss Christ photograph – an image of a crucifix submerged in a cup of the artist’s urine. Like its Muslim counterpart of early September 2012, the late 20th century Piss Christ was a crude affront to Christian pieties. But unlike the Innocence of Muslims, the Piss Christ photograph was partially funded by a United States government agency; the National Endowment for the Arts.

At the time, its irreverent creator, Andres Serrano, received death threats, and his artistic creation was ultimately vandalized. Yet Serrano still lives, and his work still arouses strong emotions among both proponents and opponents. Ironically, among Serrano’s most vocal defenders in 1987 were members of the clergy – most probably Jesuits, invested in ecumenism – who suggested that rather than being “blasphemy,” and a “desecration” of a religious symbol, one might look at Piss Christ as a statement on what modern Christians have done with the legacy of Jesus.

There is a moral to this story. If one is looking to be offended – and “pick a bone,” as the saying goes – then both Piss Christ and the Innocence of Muslims are crude, revolting offenses, rigged to inflame. If, on the other hand, one is willing to engage in civilized intercourse, even with those deemed unworthy of it, then the context of the offense might offer more clarity and more rewarding benefits than actual retribution.

Rather than asking “who is the author of this abomination, and how might revenge be meted out?” Muslims Christians and others, people of goodwill everywhere may wish to inquire why something was deemed blasphemous? Why was there blasphemy to begin with? And what can be done to address the apprehensions of both blasphemers and injured parties? As a rebellious teenager eager to offend, I once told a Jesuit catechist that I was a devil worshiper, and that I wanted out of his class – this was, by the way, deeply offensive in the Lebanon of the late-1970s. To my surprise, my catechist did not scold me, did not dismiss me from class, and did not banish me to eternal hellfire. He simply smiled and said “that’s interesting; tell me more about it!” I never left catechism.

The writer is assistant professor of Near Eastern Studies at Boston College and author of Language Memory and Identity in the Middle East; The Case for Lebanon (Lexington 2010).

His academic work has focused on the history of ideas and nationalism in the Levant, and his scholarly articles have been published in a number of leading academic journals.


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