A guard escorts a crass ‘bastard’ into a tent, as a lady beckons for his attention. After pointing out that he is not wearing any undergarments, she puts his head between her legs, which is not so subtly pointed out as the basis for divine inspiration. He then goes on to seize the wives of his companions and promote rape and pillage. The first convert to his new religion is apparently shown to be a donkey. The name of the ‘bastard’ in this clip is Muhammad. The movie is the ‘Innocence of Muslims’ and it is possibly the worst attempt at filmmaking in the history of the world. Yet its trailer has received millions of views on YouTube and today thousands of people across dozens of countries are out in protest. Why is this happening and what does it mean?
On the eleventh anniversary of the tragic attacks of September 11, 2001, a new tragedy started to unfold in the Libyan city of Benghazi and in Egypt’s capital, Cairo. Several days earlier, a somewhat popular Egyptian cleric, Sheikh Khaled Abdullah, launched a tirade into the trailer of the film, which had recently been dubbed into Arabic. The reverberating anger resulted in organized protests that initially culminated in the brutal assault on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, leading to the deaths of four U.S. government staff, including the Ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens, as well as an attack on the U.S. Embassy in Cairo where the American flag was taken down. Heading into Friday, a day of religious congregation throughout the Muslim world, the demonstrations have spread to over a dozen countries and show no signs of abating.
While it may seem through the media that universally Muslims have erupted in violent anger, the truth is that the violent protests are resonating with only a small subset of the population, and furthermore are symptomatic of a wider sense of chaos in the Middle East where there is a burgeoning contestation of the public space by competing ideologies. The film has served as a pretext for a complex web of groups to attempt to promote a radical agenda.
The film in question, Innocence of Muslims, was allegedly written, produced and directed by an Egyptian-American, who also hails from the Coptic community, the predominant Christian sect in Egypt itself, although it has been rejected almost universally within that community. Not much is known about Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, who initially presented himself to the media as an Israeli Jew named Sam Bacile (under whose name exists the YouTube account where the movie trailer is posted). An official advisor to and spokesperson for the film is Steve Klein, a self-professed anti-Jihad activist in California, with a number of radical affiliations. Terry Jones, the controversial pastor who threatened to burn a Qur’an in 2010, and subsequently had a trial in absentia for Prophet Muhammad, has promoted the film as well.
Apparently there has been one poorly attended screening of the movie in Los Angeles, but otherwise it is not yet been confirmed that there is actually a film beyond the trailer shown online. In addition, the actors who participated have alleged that the film itself and the script were amended in post-production to insert any words referring to Islam or the Prophet Muhammad. Until the trailer was dubbed in Arabic and referred to by several clerics in the Arab world, there were only a couple of thousand views of the clip online. Overall, the film is a very shoddy production (which any casual observer would note) with obscure origins that was pushed out of obscurity by its advocates and detractors alike.
What is the basis for the reaction to this film in the Muslim world? Islam as a religion does not speak with one voice. There is one central precept that unites all Muslims and that is the recitation of the witnessing of faith, or shahada, ‘There is no God but god, and Muhammad is his messenger.’ Without a central authority, the religion is subject to a constant set of competing interpretations for everything else. Within the Shiite sect, which constitutes 10-15% of Muslims worldwide, there are so-called ayatollahs who issue religious edicts, and there are a handful of grand ayatollahs (known as marja) who are the primary authority figures. There are smaller Shiite groupings such as Ismailis and Zaidis who have individual religious leaders, but they are largely peripheral groups.
This structure is even more diffuse amongst the Sunni community, which constitutes the vast majority of Muslims worldwide. While there are four primary schools (or madhab) of thought, clerical authority is seized rather than granted. There are many untrained, self-appointed reference points that seek to influence the flock. Thus, on sensitive issues you may have populist clerics that seek to expand their reach through firebrand rhetoric, leading to a competition to the lowest common denominator. It is within the Sunni tradition as well that the Muslim Brotherhood, the ruling party of Egypt, and the inspiration for groups such as Hamas in Palestine and the ruling Nahda party in Tunisia, has emerged. They are more closely aligned with Al Azhar university of Cairo, a more mainstream religious establishment.
Incidences of extremism have emerged in both Shiite and Sunni traditions, and for example, Ayatollah Khomeini, who issued the fatwa or religious ruling against the author Salman Rushdie in 1989, was of course a Shiite leader. However, in the last two decades, there has been a multiplication of Salafi thought from within the Sunni community, which is a radical and puritanical interpretation of Islam. Unlike in the Shiite community, there is no appointed central authority, and as such you get many self-appointed religious figures and pseudo-religious figures. They often question the mainstream Sunni establishment, such as Al Azhar and in fact the Muslim Brotherhood. While Salafis are not necessarily violent by any means, the puritanical interpretation of the faith rejects not only particular non-Muslims more vociferously, but accuses many fellow Muslims of being impure in their belief.
While traditionally, Salafi groups were relegated to the fringes or associated with state-controlled movements in Saudi Arabia, given the close links between Wahhabi thought, and affiliated with a small-set of Salafi-jihadist groups such as Al Qaeda, the Arab awakening or Arab spring brought them into the political spotlight, where they contested elections in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, with positive results. The cleric who initially discussed the film in Egypt, Sheikh Khaled Abdullah, is affiliated with Salafism.
It is important to point out that there has always been a rejection of blasphemy within a myriad of Islamic traditions. The defamation of Islam and the Prophet Muhammad has been condemned in both legal and religious traditions historically and contemporarily. Many countries, from Pakistan to Egypt, have blasphemy laws, some of which the punishment for can be death. Today, there is a prominent case of a young Christian girl in Pakistan who was arrested for allegedly (not proven) of burning pages of the Qur’an. However, religiously, the case and justification for blasphemy laws is mixed and nowhere in the Qur’an is there a direct call for violence against so-called ‘blasphemers’ and particularly death. In fact, one of the most prominent hadiths or sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, that Muslims learn, is about an old woman who throws garbage on the Prophet every time he passes her house and curses him. Instead of being angry, he turns the cheek, until one day, she doesn’t throw any garbage on him, and then he in fact goes to see her, not out of anger, but because he is concerned of what might have happened to her.
Whatever the actual religious basis, blasphemy has become an emotive issue in recent times and a constant pretext for those with a more strict religious agenda to mobilize religious fervor to their cause and/or mobilize people towards a certain political end. This was most salient, recently with regards to the cartoon controversy that erupted in 2005 and then with Terry Jones announcement of burning the Qur’an two years ago. However, today, we have the first prominent crisis of its kind after the Arab awakening, and thus the convergence of several trends. There is increasing chaos and instability throughout the Arab world. There is a rising political Salafi movement. There is still a latent sense of disenfranchisement in many countries, such as Yemen and Pakistan. And of course, religious feeling is very much in a renaissance in a number of these countries. This film in fact is serving as mobilization point, capitalizing on populist feelings, particularly by certain Salafi and other radical groups to advance a political-religious agenda.
It is now thought that the attack in Benghazi, which so far has been the most shocking, was pre-planned and coordinated, possibly by groups affiliated with Al Qaeda. In fact, there have been a series of counter-protests by those in Benghazi who reject the violence. Yet, the violent demonstrations as noted above, are not about the involvement of the majority of the population but rather the mobilization of several hundreds of people in each country to precipitate either a crisis or advance a particular agenda. So we do not have the entirety or plurality of Muslims globally rising up. It simply is not the case, although of course the media is spotlighting those scenes, which may lead to that conclusion. Nevertheless, it would be misleading to believe that ordinary Egyptians would like to see acrimony at this time with the U.S., as there are more important issues that they are concerned about, such as their daily wages. Similarly in Libya, Ambassador Chris Stevens was perceived very positively by many revolutionaries for his commitment to the future of that country.
The risk, unfortunately, is no less, however, simply because it is a result of a small subset of the population. In fact, because of the various factors charted above, and the security vacuum that exists in countries with new or emerging governments such as Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Yemen, and in fragile environments such as Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere, it is likely that the demonstrations could cause significant damage. There have already been before Friday, vociferous protests in over a dozen countries. Today, on Friday, the day of religious congregation, we are seeing a number of protests unfold, some that are especially concerning in Egypt and Yemen. They will likely continue in the coming days and perhaps lead to more casualties and certainty threats against Western groups and interests. This is despite the call for calm by many political leaders, such as the head of state in Libya, Mohammed Magarief, and Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi who stated that protecting embassies is an “Islamic duty.”
The broader concern is not necessarily the current film in question or the recent and ongoing demonstrations but the overall volatile environment in many of these countries, which can lead to an eruption caused by a very insignificant spark. Containing and curtailing violent and rejectionist ideologies needs to be paramount, and the dangers of groups supporting these ideologies should not be understated. This requires very nuanced policies and analysis. It means not throwing the baby out with the bathwater. It will mean working with the Muslim Brotherhood while marginalizing Salafi groups. It will mean empowering voices of inclusion and rejecting voices of exclusion. It will mean that in complex environments such as Syria, your enemy’s enemy is not necessarily your friend. And the latter is the most important lesson because in the aftermath of the Arab awakening and the continuing tension with Iran, the West has started to tacitly support groups along with many countries in the Gulf that they see as tactical allies.
There is no question that there is cause for concern right now. What is important is that we keep in mind that those contributing to the violence are in the minority and that policies towards the region must support an environment that ensures that the conditions that have led to this impasse are confronted. If this does not happen, the next time there is another seemingly insignificant spark, the crisis may be far worse.