The Politics of Provocation

The Politics of Provocation

An earlier version of this ran at openDemocracy last week, before tens of thousands marched in Benghazi to demand the dissolution of Islamist militias—a demand soon supported by the Libyan government.

The plot line could have leapt from the baroque imagination of Salman Rushdie: three Christian fundamentalists make a film to insult Islam, blame it on Jewish fundamentalists, and succeed in provoking riots by Muslim fundamentalists. Here’s the tale to date:

According to Max Blumenthal in the Guardian, a trio of Southern California anti-Muslim bigots—let us call them the Three Little Pigs—Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, an Egyptian Copt convicted of check fraud; Alan Roberts, a onetime director of soft-core porn best known for The Happy Hooker Goes Hollywood; and Steve Klein, a Christian fundamentalist insurance salesman who calls himself a “counter-jihadist”—decided to make a movie. Think of this as one of those old MGM films where Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney put on a musical in the barn, only the point of this movie was to trash Islam, provoke Muslim fundamentalist riots, and overturn the Egyptian revolution. They lied to their actors about the story line, telling them they were shooting an epic called Desert Warrior. (The casting call featured these parts: “GEORGE (Lead); 40-50, Middle Eastern warrior leader, romantic, charismatic”; “HILLARY (featured) 18 but must look younger, petite; innocent.”) After shooting with one script, the producers dubbed in another to turn the film into an aimed-to-offend biopic of the prophet Mohamed.

The Three Little Pigs hired a hall for a day to show their film, now called Innocence of Muslims. They made a trailer that hung around the web for a while without anyone noticing. Then they contacted Morris Sadek, a rabidly right-wing Copt based in DC, whom Daniel Burke of Religion News Service says was barred from returning to Egypt in May 2011 after he called for war against his own country. Sadek, who is associated with Koran-burning Florida preacher Terry Jones and is despised by more mainstream Copts, dubbed the film into Arabic, put it on his website, and on September 6 emailed it to Egyptian and other journalists along with a press release for Terry Jones’s annual September 11 “International Judge Muhammad Day.” A right-wing TV host in Egypt broadcast the video on September 8.

The video went viral and on September 11 mass protests “spontaneously” broke out against this new U.S. insult to Islam. In Cairo, the U.S. embassy was besieged while the government did nothing. In Libya, the riots seem to have been used as a cover for a planned military attack that resulted in the death of ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other U.S. citizens. No one has yet taken credit for this attack.

On September 12, the AP and Wall Street Journal looked for the film’s director and did phone interviews with a man who called himself Sam Bacile. He told them that he was an Israeli-American who had made the film with $5 million financing from “100 Jewish donors.” In fact, as digging by other journalists was soon to reveal, the AP and WSJ had been conned by none other than Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, who—with the help of others in the mainstream press who spread the story—used them to telegraph the lie about “100 Jewish donors” all over the world. As Adam Novetzy explains in Tablet, the damage done by this kind of lazy reporting is significant. But, who knows, if the blood libel stimulates further conflict between Jews and Muslims, Nakoula and other Christian fundamentalists may see that as a bonus.

The fallout from the film continues. An American-run school in Tunis has been ransacked, and there have been new demonstrations against the United States or attacks on U.S. embassies in Afghanistan, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Egypt (where hundreds of people have been injured in Cairo street fighting), the Egyptian Sinai, Gaza, India, Indonesia, Iraq, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Malaysia, Nigeria, Pakistan (where dozens died on Friday), Qatar, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, and Yemen, as well as on the English and German embassies in Khartoum. The Egyptian general prosecutor has issued arrest warrants for those responsible for the film, while a Pakistani cabinet minister has issued a $100,000 bounty for Nakoula’s head.

So what are we to make of all this? Does the viral spread of a film meant to provoke, and the resulting deaths, mean we need heavier web censorship and laws against blasphemy? Not to me. Nor do I agree with the Obama administration’s call upon YouTube to review whether or not the film violates its terms of service—in other words, to censor itself. The film was designed to insult, but nobody forces people to go crazy when their religion is insulted. To make this point, the Onion published a cartoon insulting the deities of four of the world’s major religions (not including Islam) under the headline, “No One Murdered Because of This Image.”

The uproar over Innocence of Muslims is exactly the result hoped for by the Three Little Pigs; as one of them, Steve Klein, said about the deaths in Benghazi, “We went into this knowing this was probably going to happen.” In other words, they hoped to provoke riots in order to show the world that Muslims were wild and crazy people. And the Muslim fundamentalists who organized the riots were glad to oblige because provocations help them build their movement.

Since the provocation resulted in many deaths, the Three Little Pigs and their enablers should certainly be called to account. The deaths cannot be monetarized. But some of the other damage probably can. The Southern Poverty Law Center has had considerable success in civil suits against the Klan, the Aryan Nation, and other white supremacist groups in cases of murder and assault, bankrupting at least two organizations. I hope that the actors who were misused in the film and the families of people killed in riots against it will find it in their hearts to sue the hell out of the Three Little Pigs and everyone who helped them.

In one of those ironic coincidences, last week marked the twenty-fifth anniversary of the publication of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses. Rushdie has a forthcoming memoir of his years living under the fatwa—for those too young to remember, this was a call by the Ayatollah Khomeini for Rushdie’s assassination because he was a blasphemer, though Khomeini had not even read his book. The fatwa resulted in riots and deaths much like those in the last two weeks, as well as bombings and the murders of publishers and translators. Rushdie had to live underground, with police protection, for years.

In a section of Rushdie’s memoir published in the New Yorker, he remembers when he began to study the Koran and the history of Islam as a Cambridge undergraduate; that was when he first learned of the existence of “Satanic Verses” and began to think like a historian about what their origin might have been. The section is too long to quote here but is a beautiful rendition of the way doors open in your mind when you become able to imagine yourself back into the past. For this reason fundamentalists hate and fear the study of history; it is likely to lead to questioning of dogmatic interpretations of text.

In another section of the memoir, Rushdie makes what might be his last visit to his sister, a lawyer who breaks the politics down for him:

The Iranian Revolution had been shaky ever since Khomeini was forced, in his own words, to “drink the cup of poison” and accept the unsuccessful end of his Iraq war, which had left a generation of young Iranians dead or maimed. The fatwa was his way of regaining political momentum, of re-energizing the faithful. It was her brother’s bad luck to be the dying man’s last stand. As for the British Muslim “leaders,” whom, exactly, did they lead? They were leaders without followers, mountebanks trying to make careers out of her brother’s misfortune. For a generation, the politics of ethnic minorities in Britain had been secular and socialist. This was the mosques’ way of getting religion into the driver’s seat. British Asians had never splintered into Hindu, Muslim, and Sikh factions before. Somebody needed to answer these people who were driving a sectarian wedge through the community, she said, to name them as the hypocrites and opportunists that they were.

She was right: somebody needed to answer them then and somebody still does—and to answer not only Islamists but all the other fundamentalist provocateurs as well: Christian fundamentalists like the Three Little Pigs, who scheme to whip up hatred against Muslims at the same time they purvey blood libels against Jews; and Jewish fundamentalists who consider anyone not of their own faith less human than they are, and act accordingly. Feminists have been saying “beware of fundamentalism” for the last twenty years, and we need to say it now louder than ever: anyone who whips up religious antagonisms to win political power is an enemy of human rights.