At the top of the news this week are the demonstrations and assaults in Libya, Cairo, and Yemen over an anti-Muslim film. There are several threads to this story, but one of them has to do with the making of the film as a perceived insult crime. From my Pussy Riot posting:
Pussy Riot’s offense was an “insult crime”, disrespecting some public figure, religion, or political entity. They managed to pull off a trifecta (in the eyes of the authorities), disrespecting Vladimir Putin, Christianity (in the form of the Russian Orthodox Church), and the Russian state. And as a result inciting others to follow them in their disrespect. So of course they had to be harshly punished. [This punishment might now be ameliorated. Stay tuned.]
In this case, the punishment was meted out through the Russian legal system. In the Innocence of Muslims case, as in the Danish cartoons events of a few years ago, punishment comes from angry mobs. And in the earlier controversy over Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, the initial judgment came from a religious authority (in the form of a fatwa from Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the Supreme Leader of Iran), followed by mob violence and assassinations.
In each situation, the offense was against religion: disrespecting, insulting, a religion.
In the Pussy Riot case, it was the Russian Orthodox Church. In the others, it’s Islam: in particular, showing disrespect to the Prophet Muhammad. The Rushdie affair — now written up by Rushdie himself in the latest New Yorker (of 9/17/12), in “The Disappeared: How the fatwa changed a writer’s life” — began by being directed specifically towards the writer, though things spread. In the Danish cartoons and the Innocence of Muslims cases, the reaction quickly expanded from being directed at the offending materials to being directed at their country of origin, and eventually beyond; it’s this generalization of the offense that especially interests me. Why, Americans are wondering now, is the United States being held responsible for the actions of an American film-maker? (Danes had a similar reaction in the cartoons affair.)
At the outset, let me concede that these last two situations involve a great deal more than a response to a perceived insult. There was clearly intended provocation in the Muslims film case, and both situations were fueled and fanned by groups with goals of their own, in particular salafists and Al-Qaeda (and Boko Haram, if the reaction spreads to Nigeria). Still, there’s the insult and the public response to it, and we can think about these things on their own.
First, the offense. We can all agree, I think, that the Danish cartoons and the Muslims film are offensive, in a non-technical sense. But seeing them as offensive in a technical sense (as a matter of religious law) is something else. Yet a great many Muslims do see them as offensive in this sense — as offending principles that transcend place, time, and nationality. In their view, an offense to Islam is an offense everywhere, so that offending material should be suppressed and its creators punished, everywhere. In their view, it’s the duty of governments — all governments — to carry out these sanctions, and if the Danish or American governments do not do so, then these governments are as culpable as the original sources of the offense. So, many would then conclude, the governments, and their representatives, should be subject to punishment themselves.
When you mix these lines of thinking in with jockeying for power and influence in the Muslim world, with specifically anti-Western movements in that world, with deliberate provocations by anti-Muslim Westerners, and with mob psychology, you have a poisonous brew.
Case studies. First, The Satanic Verses. From p. 57 of Rushdie’s New Yorker piece (which is written in the third person):
The book took more than four years to write. Afterward, when people tried to reduce it to an “insult,” he wanted to reply, “I can insult people a lot faster than that.” But it did not strike his opponents as strange that a serious writer should spend a tenth of his life creating something as crude as an insult. This was because they refused to see him as a serious writer. In order to attack him and his work, they had to paint him as a bad person, an apostate traitor, an unscrupulous seeker of fame and wealth, an opportunist who “attacked Islam” for his own personal gain.
And from p. 64, on the spread of the poison:
Bookstores were firebombed – Collets and Dillons in London, Abbey’s in Sydney. Libraries refused to stock the book, chains refused to carry it, a dozen printers in France refused to print the French edition, and more threats were made against publishers. Muslims began to be killed by other Muslims if they expressed non-bloodthirsty opinions. In Belgium, the mullah who was said to be the “spiritual leader” of the country’s Muslims … and his … deputy … were killed for saying that whatever Khomeini had said for Iranian consumption, in Europe there was freedom of expression.
Then to the Danish cartoons. From a Times Topic summary of 8/12/09 by Patricia Cohen:
After a Danish newspaper and other European publications displayed 12 cartoons caricaturing the Prophet Muhammad in 2005 and early 2006, violent protests erupted around the world. Muslims throughout the Middle East and Africa rioted. They burned embassies and churches and fought with police; at least 200 died and many more were injured. The incident highlighted some of the issues raised by Europe’s growing Muslim minority: How do you draw the line between free expression and respect for religion? Can Western democracies accommodate the growing cultural and religious differences?
Although most of the violence over the cartoons simmered down within a few months, the issue has flared from time to time. Last year, a bomb outside the Danish embassy in Pakistan killed eight people; Al Qaeda claimed it was revenge for the “insulting drawings.” So it is understandable that any decision to reprint those same cartoons would be a difficult one. That is why Yale University Press decided to ask two dozen experts on Islam, terrorism and diplomacy whether it should include the cartoons in a forthcoming book about the original 2006 crisis, “The Cartoons That Shook the World,” by Jytte Klausen. The answer Yale received was unanimous and vehement: do not print the cartoons. In addition, the experts also warned against publishing any image of the prophet Muhammad in the context of the cartoons. Yale ended up pulling a few other images that were also supposed to be included.
Many Muslims interpret the Koran as forbidding images of Muhammad, but there is a long tradition of artistic representation in both Islamic and Western art, and many depictions of the prophet have appeared without incident.
John Donatich, the director of Yale University Press, said the press has a long history of defending free expression, but the risk of violence in this case, outweighed the benefit of including the images, which can easily be found on the Internet.
Sigh. That brings us to the Muslims film story, which is still unfolding, in monstrous complexity; any attempt to summarize things will be quickly supersed by fresh news (and speculation and rumor). The film was made by someone who’s gone under a number of names and seems to represent some anti-Muslim group (variously said to involve Coptic Christians or Jews or both). The film is pretty much unwatchable — I’ve looked at a trailer — and in its crude depictions of Muhammad and Islam seems to be intended to inflame Muslims around the world and to goad them into engaging in actions that will show them in their worst light and so will draw supporters to the anti-Muslim cause. Not a pleasant picture.