Well, I’ve now watched what may be the entirety of The Innocence of Muslims, the film that has, ostensibly, sparked the recent demonstrations and violence in Egypt, Yemen, Libya, Pakistan, and elsewhere.
As the saying goes, those are fourteen minutes of my life that I’ll never get back.
It’s a dreadful piece of work – badly acted (especially noteworthy is the aged Arabian Jewess who speaks with a distinct Brooklyn accent), incomprehensible and disjointed, with oddly wavering sound quality. But its production values aren’t the least of its many sins.
At one point, in connection with his marriage to the very young A’isha, daughter of Abu Bakr, the film calls Muhammad a “child molester.” I understand where this is coming from, though I think the charge is inflammatory and deeply misleading, and that this union needs to be placed within its Arabian historical context (something that I may, someday, attempt to do in an academic setting).
But there is utterly no historical basis for the film’s depiction of the Qur’an as a deliberate fraud concocted, at the request of Khadija, on Muhammad’s behalf by Waraqa b. Nawfal (who, curiously, is shown in the film wearing the apparent garb of a Coptic priest).
Nor is there even the slightest warrant in the documents for representing early Muslims as gleefully simple-minded sadists whose early expansion was motivated by lust and pedophilia, let alone for portraying Muhammad as illegitimate and as an idiotic buffoon, and both Muhammad and the Caliph Umar as “gay.”
It’s amazing to see how much insulting falsehood the film’s creator(s) managed to cram into somewhat less than a quarter of an hour.
The movie has no redeeming virtues, and I cannot imagine that it would ever have gained much of an audience anywhere had murders and demonstrations in parts of the Islamic world not made it internationally famous.
As an undergraduate, decades ago, I once acted in and co-directed a satirical movie entitled Oedipus Wrecked. About the same length as The Innocence of Muslims (a puzzling title, by the way, that is never explained), it was roughly as faithful to its historical sources and far better filmed, but never gained an audience of more than a hundred people. (The site on which I saw The Innocence of Muslims boasts nearly six million views, and it’s not the only place to watch the thing.) Oedipus Wrecked also never existed in more than one copy – this was long before personal computers, etc. – and, so far as I’m aware, may no longer exist at all. If it does, it’s in the custody of a Salt Lake City psychiatrist. (A fellow student at the time, he was one of its co-directors – honest! – and his wife was our lead, and only, actress.) I’m bitterly jealous that this piece of dreck, The Innocence of Muslims, has gained such notoriety. It’s not even (intentionally) funny.
But we’re talking serious matters here. People have been murdered (at least ostensibly) over this worthless film, their bodies defiled, embassies and consulates damaged if not destroyed.
Writing in the Daily News, an English-language version of the Turkish newspaperHrriyet, for 15-16 September, columnist Mustafa Aykol proclaims this a “Time for Muslim Anger Management.” Like me, he has seen the film (though he describes it aseleven minutes long). Quite accurately, he pronounces it “simply disgusting,” “a silly yet nasty attempt to demonize Islam in all possible ways.”
“The main problem here,” he writes, “which we also saw in the protests of the insults against the Prophet Muhammad in Danish cartoons, is that the peoples of the Middle East are not used to make a distinction between a government and a society, because in their own countries, governments typically control everything. So, when cartoons in Denmark or films in America vilify Islam, they intuitively presume that the Danish or the American governments have allowed this to happen,’ if they didn’t do it themselves behind the scenes.”
“Ignorance of the way the West works in many Muslims countries makes rabble-rousing easy,” observes The Economist (“Muslim Rage: Why They Won’t Calm Down,” 15 September 2012). “Protestors at the American embassy in Cairo on September 11th erroneously believed the offensive film to have been shown on American state television’: in a place with a weak tradition of independent broadcasting, that claim is not as absurd as it might be elsewhere.”
One of the many things we ought to be doing is explaining to the Muslim world that our government does not and cannot and, by our values, should not do anything about even worthless and dishonest films. I have no illusion that doing so will end these demonstrations or calm the rage in the short term. But these sorts of responses have happened before (e.g., with the Danish cartoons, and, much earlier, with Moustapha Akkad’s film The Message), and The Innocence of Muslims will, sadly, certainly not provide the last occasion for rioting and killing over a Western depiction of Muhammad.