Confronting Islamic Intimidation

'Since when does violence by those whose religious feelings are offended weaken America's resolve to stand by its values?'

In 1988, The Last Temptation of Christ, the movie by Martin Scorsese, based on a novel by the Greek author Nikos Kazantzakis, caused a storm of protests. Many  Christian groups found it offensive and staged pickets and protests across America. Several Catholic countries in Latin America and one Muslim country — Turkey — banned it. But across the Western world, it was screened to great acclaim. Protests passed off peacefully, by and large. And those who objected raised their voices — but did not rise up in arms.

There was one exception — the Saint-Michel cinema in Paris was assaulted by militants from a Christian fundamentalist group who threw Molotov cocktails into the audience. Four people suffered serious injuries and the building was burned to the ground.

That was then — and the assaults on the US consulate in Benghazi, the US embassy in Cairo and the US embassy in Yemen are now. The almost uniform explanation for the attacks was that rioters had been offended by a movie entitled The Innocence of Muslims. On September 13, for example, the New York Times ran a front-page story headlined “Video that stoked violence has murky history” — suggesting that it was the film that had stoked the violence. It was extremists who provoked the violence, not the movie.

Until people died under the pretext that Muslims were upset about it, hardly anyone had seen it — though it was available on YouTube and it went viral after the attacks. There has been controversy about the author’s identity but it appears to be a California resident of Coptic Egyptian descent named Nakouba Basseley Nakouba.

The movie would make even diehard detractors of Islam fall asleep in their chairs. It is not remotely comparable to The Last Temptation, in which Willem Dafoe played Jesus, Harvey Keitel was Judas and David Bowie Pontius Pilate. That was vintage Scorsese, an incredibly gripping and dramatic rendition of Kazantzakis’s masterpiece. The Innocence of Muslims, by contrast, is a soporific rant against Islam. Still, there’s no law against poor quality and bad-taste films.

When the Saint-Michel cinema went up in flames in 1988, there was universal condemnation. Even Paris’s archbishop, the late Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, who had previously condemned the film, denounced the militants: “You don’t behave as Christians but as enemies of Christ. From the Christian point of view, one doesn’t defend Christ with arms. Christ himself forbade it.” The lesson was clear: making fun of religion is an integral part of Western societies and a right they will defend — no matter how offensive it may be to Muslims or others.

But then came another insult: Salman Rushdie and his masterful Satanic Verses. The book earned a fatwa from the late Ayatollah Khomeini, the founding father of Iran’s Islamic Revolution and its unquestioned leader until his death. 

Condemnation for the death sentence that Khomeini issued against Rushdie and anyone else who cooperated in the promotion of the book — translators were assassinated, publishers intimidated and bookshops burned — was less universal. And, most important, there was a striking lack of prominent Muslim clerics of the rank of a Lustiger to condemn the violence in no uncertain terms.

By the time of the Danish cartoon controversy in 2005, it was evident that Western leaders and intellectuals had lost their appetite to stand up to religious bigotry unless it was harmless. Apologies and self-censorship dominated the airwaves — and though Western embassies were assaulted in the Middle East, we in the West found no better way to respond to this outrage than entertaining the notion that we might need blasphemy laws again to prevent religious sensitivities from being hurt. Suddenly, the cartoonists, and not those who wished them dead, were the bigoted zealots.

Is it any wonder, then, that the most instinctive first reaction to the September 11, 2012 attacks, issued on Twitter by the US embassy in Cairo, was a condemnation of “the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims — as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions”?

This was the same America whose mainstream press refused to republish the Danish cartoons in 2005. This is the same America whose president chose to deliver a historic speech in Cairo at the beginning of his presidency in order to mend fences with what he thought was a Muslim world aggrieved by American policies alone. 

It is the same America that “condemns efforts to offend believers of all religions”, but where a Broadway show entitled The Book of Mormon derides the faith of the Republican presidential candidate with no detectable condemnation of, or consequence for, its authors. It is the same America where Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ, which many Jews found deeply offensive and liable to stoke old anti-Jewish hatreds by reviving the accusation of Jews as Christ-killers, was shown across the country without any thought of censoring it.  

This America that rightfully and repeatedly defended the mockery of faiths in the name of its immortal freedoms now feels the need to apologise for an obscure movie nobody had ever heard of until September, just because an angry mob of bloodthirsty thugs uses it as a pretext for breaching diplomatic immunity and murdering diplomats.

Violence is what made them apologise — the bully always gets his way when he confronts the weak and the meek. But since when does violence weaken America’s resolve to stand by its values?

Or is it that, as in Europe, America’s leaders no longer have the moral strength to stand up to this type of bullying because they no longer know what is worth defending, and have forgotten that religious freedom and freedom of speech have no value if they are only there to protect mainstream beliefs and opinions?

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