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.
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.
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 home-video.
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
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
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
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.
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.