Sunday, September 23, 2012

Innocence of Muslims: Freedom at a Price

Innocence of Muslims, a 13 minute video on YouTube, is a grotesque and bigoted piece of propaganda which would be laughable were it not for the ugly Islamophobia it propagates. But images have the power to persuade and this nasty piece of work has had the effect its makers likely intended.

It was apparently made by an Egyptian-American Coptic Christian living in the United States though initial news reports stated it was made by an Israeli property developer using funds from “Jewish donors”. Regardless, the damage is done and the fact remains that this piece of trash is so bad it makes for effective propaganda.

It is an embarrassment to the art of film making. Poor acting, crude stage sets and lines that don’t lip-synch with what the actors are mouthing is the order of the day. So why the level of venom and violence over such an amateurish production? And how do we make sense of such unpredictable outbreaks of violence?

There is a belief in the West that if Arab countries (I differentiate between Arab countries and the wider Muslim world) would just adopt democracy then we’d all get along just fine. This reveals a delusional understanding of concurrent reality, and an acceptance that the West has little or no control over such events. Consider: We are seeing people storming the streets with anti-Western messages in the same countries where popular rebellions against authoritarian dictators were hailed as the "Arab spring" just months ago.

What is the difference between a hitherto obedient population rising to overthrow a brutal dictator and rioting mobs blinded by inflammatory rhetoric? Certainly the “trailer” has nothing to do with the government of the United States, but in our electronic age images flashed around the world can falsely shape perceptions of who we are. Like it or not, this virtual world is our reality. Doubtless poverty, exploitation, repression and bad leaders have also shaped the visceral reaction to it.

In the West we see nothing wrong with making such a movie. After all, it’s up to the individual whether or not to watch something. And it says nothing about what other Americans feel about Islam, only what the few people who made the movie believe. To us it seems ridiculous to blame the employees of the US embassy or Americans or Westerners in general for such an amateur production. Our freedom of expression is a right, albeit one that is often imperfectly realized.

Should our right to freedom of expression not overstep other individuals’ rights not to be insulted? Should we acknowledge the film is wrong and move on? Of course, it would be good if bigots didn’t produce provocative films, if Muslims saw it for what it is etc; but give me freedom of choice every time.

Sadly, the violence and the loss of life completes the work of this awful film. It is undoubtedly a provocation but people still have a choice about how to express their disgust. Is that best done by attacking the nearest Western symbols, or by peaceful demonstration and legal challenge?

There is a lot of nonsense on YouTube some of which is best ignored. What is clear is that the film makers went out of their way to offend. Here’s hoping that Muslim communities can be persuaded to treat it with the contempt it deserves…