I think I am far too young a person to be so jaded by the news of this week, but it is a repetition of events of which I have tired.
The sequence is as follows: Someone slanders Islam or the prophet Muhammad, followed by an overreaction of certain pockets of the Muslim population and accompanying media attention focused on that minority of frenzied individuals. I’m sure next week there will be a news magazine with a cover photograph of stereotypically angry Muslim men. This was the case with the Danish cartoons of the prophet Muhammad and the reaction to the release of the book "Satanic Verses," and it’s happening once again because of a very silly Internet clip called "Innocence of Muslims."
The 14-minute trailer found online is laughably low-budget and poor-quality. The actors allege they did not know they were working on an anti-Islam film, and that words like Muhammad and Arab were dubbed post-production. The movie insults the prophet, depicting him as stupid, angry and sexually perverse. For Muslims, this is a film that insults the person they most revere, follow and model their lives after. Influential leaders in Muslim majority countries found it online and it gained attention. What followed were protests outside of U.S. embassies in Egypt and Yemen, and an attack on the Libyan embassy sadly causing the death of 4 American diplomats including Ambassador Chris Stevens.
We need to deconstruct what’s going on.
1) People get offended.
People will be offended if you mock something important to them. I don’t care who you are – there is something that will upset you. Jokes about your football team, your dog, your country, your children, "yo momma" – something will cross a line for almost every person. For many Muslims, that line is mocking their prophet. With as much emphasis as our nation has on liberty, particularly on free speech, Americans have mistakenly thought that we have an unlimited right to say anything we want. While we can say what we want, legally, that doesn’t mean we should or that exercising that ability is civil or morally upright. There exist social and legal limits on demonstration and speech. For example, many Americans hate to see their flag burned, and there have been attempts for a constitutional amendment to ban it. In several European Union countries, it is illegal to deny the holocaust. We have to admit that when it comes to free speech, some things are just more unacceptable than others. On the other hand, not every person who is offended becomes feels the need to protest outside a U.S. embassy. That brings us to point number two.
2) This doesn’t represent us.
This reaction and anger is not just because of this film. There is a collective memory of Western imperialism in the middle east, of U.S. political cooperation with the now deposed dictators Muammar Gaddafi and Hosni Mubarak, of Florida pastors burning Qurans and U.S. troops torturing Iraqis, of constant drone strikes on innocent people. These recent memories make it easy for one to assume that the U.S. endorses an offensive film that demonizes Islam. In countries with a history of authoritarianism, such as Egypt and Libya, the government must give its approval to all films. Citizens of these same nations may mistakenly think that this American production has earned the approval from the U.S. government. For this reason, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had to explain in a press conference that the American government has nothing to do with the film. At the same time, Libyans held a public demonstration outside the U.S. embassy to apologize, holding signs saying the actions of the attackers don’t represent Libya, Benghazi or the behavior of people following the example of the prophet. Both parties are desperately trying to have audiences understand that a single person, group of people, film or action does not define a society. As an American Muslim, neither that film nor the violence that it may have sparked represent me.
3) We don’t know everything.
Note that I said violence that may have been sparked from the films. Ultimately, we don’t know many of the facts about these recent events. Some reporters have pointed out that the attack on the U.S. embassy in Benghazi was far too organized to have been in immediate reaction to the film. More likely it was a coincidence in timing, or the attackers used the film as a convenient “reason” for their actions. We don't know much about the filmmaker, and I certainly don’t understand what his intent was with the release of these films. But I know a few things. I know the prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, had more slanderous things said to his face and more awful behavior directed towards him, and he handled each verbal and physical attack with kindness and patience. I know he would not lash out in anger, and Muslims who truly understand and emulate his character do not either. I know that this film doesn’t represent American views on Islam, and it cannot speak for the opinions of 300 million citizens of this country. I know that Americans that want an image as a civil member global community should decry the insults one of their own makes against any faith or any people.
And I don’t know if we’ll experience another similar incident of misunderstanding and outrage in the future, but I sure hope not.