Here we are again. Great swathes of North Africa and the Middle East, the heartlands of Islam, stand in protest against a perceived slight of the western world against their faith. This slight is, of course, “Innocence of Muslims”, the incredibly crude and offensive effort of the enigmatic “Sam Bacille” now thought to be one Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, an American-Egyptian of the Coptic faith. His short YouTube video wastes no time in offering such intentionally outrageous portrayals of the most sacred aspects of Islam that in fact one could almost sympathise with the reaction seen across the region. Almost.
This seems to be a perpetually revisited issue in the modern world. Why is Islam so singular in its sensitivity to criticism? Had this video dealt with Christianity, Judaism or any other major world faith in similarly revolting terms it would have been totally ignored other than to perhaps elicit a view giggles in the smoke-filled rooms of younger students. However the production values alone are enough to disengage even the most vehement rib-poker of religious values and I suspect it would simply have vanished from memory. Indeed, the “Innocence of Muslims” (IoM) almost did until it was finally translated into Arabic and promoted, months after its publication, to the attention of Egyptian news outlets by another Coptic, one Morris Sadek.
The initial feeling is that this entire situation is completely needless. What was the point in making this appalling video? What was the point in promoting or translating it? Why does the Islamic faith have to react so strongly to a cheap insult? It’s all incredibly frustrating for a pragmatist. Regardless, the situation exists and despite being so entirely unnecessary, raises questions of great significance as to the nature of faith, it’s place in the world today and more specifically, the relationship between Islam and the western world.
I am not a person of faith. It is my personal view that organised religion is an anachronism best studied for its academic relevance to human history and culture. My interest in Jesus, Moses or Buddha ends at trying to properly contextualise their historical reality with what I perceive as the myth of their divine status. This is not to say that spirituality has no value, as in fact I think it profoundly does, to another person, but my interest in dogma stopped with the realisation that logically, philosophically and historically it made no sense. Hopefully not in contradiction to this however is that, to a reasonable degree, I understand the mind of the faithful. In my youth I was possessed with a notion of belief.
Here is my contention.
Ignoring the question of whether or not belief is rational itself, the rational response of the believer when confronted with a flagrant denouncement of their religion should be akin to mild amusement. I construct this fictional conversation between two actors:
Sceptic: “Your religion is false, your god is false and thus your way of life is false. I shun your values completely.”
Rational Believer: “You’re a fool. My god is true and I live my life by the word of God. I will be rewarded in heaven and you will suffer eternal damnation. No punishment of mine could ever be greater. Live your life in sin and I shall pity you”
Sceptic: “But I pity you. There is no god and so you waste your life by limiting yourself to laws that have no meaning”
Rational Believer: “Then you’re a greater fool still. My faith is strong and my life is enriched by abiding these laws. I do it in God’s name, nothing could be better.”
The greatest defence of faith is total confidence. Anger is most often the symptom of uncertainty and fear, a reaction to the unpleasant possibility that what you strike out against has actual value or merit.
Christianity: “I am the Lord thy God… Thou shalt have no other gods before me…”
Islam: “There is no god but God, Muhammad is the messenger of God”
These are statements of pure certainty, The Ten Commandments and shahada are unequivocal. Theoretically a person of faith should have no room for anger in their defence of faith, should their faith be true. They believe in a god and have the word of this god as their defence. Sadly the greatest strength of the faithful is undermined by the concept of blasphemy. The idea that an omnipresent, omniscient and omnipotent entity could be insulted by a mere human is strange to me. The idea that this insult must then be addressed by human actions is even more strange. Again, what punishment could we enact that could ever be worse than divine punishment?
Is not blasphemy a human construct born out of the idea that faith requires a human defence?
Self-defeating Believer: “Call my god false, undermine a foundation of my social and cultural existence? Well, my god says I should take your head off with this big sword. So there, I won that argument, anyone else feel the same way?”
Setting aside the issue of religion for a moment we should look at the more open concept of free speech. It is completely unoriginal to state at this point that never should any form of non-violent expression incite a violent reaction. This isn’t only born from the importance of always being able to say what you want without fear of physical reprisal (including against those you might criticise; incitement to hate is violent expression) but it also represents the need in all situations for a measured response. Nakoula made a video clip, and an extremely poor one at that. Where is the proportional nature in an entire global region taking to the streets? Perhaps a counter-film, along the lines of Terry Jones being sodomised by the bowsprit of the Ark while Jesus and Judas got familiar on the deck would have been more appropriate? Just an idea. That one, incidentally, would have been just as accurate as IoM and hopefully some bright, young Egyptian media students could up the quality a bit.
Time to change the tone somewhat. The truth of the current protests is that they are largely peaceful albeit still quite lively in their reaction to this video. There is actually even an apologetic element with counter-protests defending the majority of peaceful Muslims. A minority of undoubtedly politically motivated actors have escalated these protests towards the violent assaults on various embassies and western corporate properties. Commentators and various media outlets have been quite careless in not very directly addressing this as I believe that after some decades of increasing sensitivities, the natural disposition of the less engaged western observer is to view Islam as a sort of monolithic entity lacking in humanity and restraint. It is far too easy to ignore the complexities of this issue.
And IoM was unquestionably designed to create precisely this reaction. It is maybe the saddest aspect of the protests that they have played directly into Nakoula’s intentions, as he has made his controversial statement and now has the satisfaction of watching elements of the Islamic world enforce it. It is the responsibility and higher calling of the western world to understand this.
What of the responsibilities of Islam? If the west is to disenfranchise itself from the ill-conceived notion that Islam is a homogeneously aggressive religion then could perhaps the Islamic world begin to de-construct their own anti-western sentiments? “Death to America” is becoming a very boring and unintelligent slogan. The facts behind IoM reveal that the average American, or their government, has as little to do with it as the average Muslim had to do with the attacks of September 11th 2001.
Understanding that an anti-Islamic film was privately funded by an Egyptian-American Coptic Christian, under the guise of being funded by a group of wealthy Jewish contributors, should lead to the understanding that it was patently designed to create strife. There has obviously been a crass miscarriage of information, as to believe that the majority of protesters are wilfully ignorant or independently responsible for their own negative sentiments is to blame anyone throughout history who acted controversially under the lies of an external authority.
What the external authority is in this case is hard to say, I am not sufficiently informed to state that it was hardline governmental elements, extremist religious influences or an extensively established sense of victimisation formed out of years of western manipulation and militancy. Most likely it is all three factors and more still. This incident has notably brought to the conscience once again the truth that there are agitators on both sides with an agenda. They are currently succeeding in this.
The following thought may have occurred to you at some point during the last couple of weeks. If religion didn’t exist in today’s world, where communication is so easy and thus disinformation and over-exposure to prejudice is greatly enabled, none of this and much worse would ever have occurred. In essence this is true and the evidence is clear that religion is struggling to find its place. But as I said earlier, spirituality has value. That it has no value to me is irrelevant to its importance to many though I do make a distinction here between religion and spirituality. It seems to me there is credence in the argument that institutional religion has more often been a motivator of conflict than harmony, such being the nature of difference. I have however no authority to say that spirituality has no place, even if it must be informed through those institutions, because I recognise its value to others.
What I do know is that for this debate to have a positive outcome it requires a much higher level of discourse between the involved parties. The aforementioned wonders of communication that have led to every example of violence and crime seem sorely under-used where solutions are concerned. For every Nakoula, Jones, DWOC, bin Laden, al Queda or Taliban and any example of firebrand preacher, imam or organisation that carries a message of aggression, needs to be a much louder and considerably more rational voice.