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…


Suzanne Stenson O'Brien said...

You and Nicholas Kristof are on a common wavelength this morning: "Should we curb the freedom to insult religions that are twitchy?"

Christopher said...

Suzanne: It's a tough issue. I am loathe to see anyone insult another religion and yet it seems that is the price of freedom.

Marie K said...

Sadly here in the UK we are subjected to frequent "demonstrations" by muslims against the religion of the country they choose to live in. We have to put up with it, for fear of upsetting them, while they chant "burn in hell christians" Their demostrations are policed to ensure their safety, while other groups with an anti-muslim message are banned from demonstrating. Muslims get preferential treatment, for housing, schools, benefits so that we are not considered racist, and still they hate the West. I am not a racist, however I do find parts of the muslim faith offensive and that's not something I can say publicly in the current climate, so for me that film is an expression of freedom of speech, something that is being eroded, by our fear of muslims and our need to placate them.

C Pepin said...

Thanks for this insightful commentary.
I suggest that your statement "in our electronic age images flashed around the world shape who we are" means "in our electronic age images flashed around the world shape others' perception of who we are" since the virtual reality is not truly reality.

Sadly, I also think your ending statement of hoping "that Muslim communities can be persuaded to treat it with the contempt it deserves" has already been proven wrong. If they could have been persuaded, we would not be seeing the demonstrations and violence we see now. Perhaps we can still hope that the majority of Muslims can be persuaded, but given the fundamental irrationality of religions, I don't share that hope.

Christopher said...

C Pepin: Yes, I concur with your comment that in our electronic age images flashed around the world shape others' perception of who we are. That is what I meant and have modified my sentence. Thanks for pointing this out.

Christopher said...

Marie K: What is the solution? Freedom of speech in the U.K. should be safeguarded by all and for all.

Ev said...

Where do we draw the line between insulting peoples beliefs and freedom of expression? Is it right that someone can film something so distasteful in the name of freedom of speech. For example there are many films out there that exploit peoples beliefs and hardships. eg. is it right that you can mock someone who has lost a child in the name of freedom of expression?

Christopher said...

Ev: The line between freedom of expression and insulting someone’s beliefs contains many shades of grey; however, I firmly believe that in the long run the former will prove to be the right choice - however distasteful the opinions of someone like the film maker might be.