We tend to forget that it was in September 2005 that the editors of Jyllands-Posten first published a series of cartoons satirizing not just the Prophet Muhammad but the cultural hypocrisy that attends that any debate about freedom of speech where Islam is concerned. This collective amnesia is understandable and owes to the fact that a handful of Danes, some of whom also poked fun at their own self-conscious provocation, managed to avoid a global controversy until January 2006, almost four months on from the cartoons’ original publication. It was only then that European legations and non-Danish fast food joints were firebombed or stormed and boycotts of Danish consumer products were imposed across the Middle East. Never had Lego blocks seemed so polarizing.
In other words, it took four months for the clerics and their authoritarian helpmeets in the Middle East to organize a sophisticated public relations campaign that would stir indignation and hysteria where only ignorance and indifference existed. The lineage of this row, and the parallels with the current conflagration of anti-Americanism in the region, ostensibly ignited by an anti-Islam film no one had heard of before last week, are worth recounting.
In December 2005, a delegation of Danish imams met in Cairo with Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa and officials from Hosni Mubarak’s government. The imams carried not just the original Jyllands-Posten images but three new ones that they claimed added “context” as to how Islam was routinely lampooned with impunity in the West. One of these depicted a man in a pig mask said to represent a typical infidel’s derisory view of the founder of the faith, when in fact it was a newswire photograph of a French farmer from the Pyrenees who was competing in his town’s annual “pig-squealing competition.” A second delegation traveled to Beirut where the imams visited with Sunni and Shia clerics and did guest appearances on Al Jazeera and Hezbollah’s Al-Manar television channel. One member of the delegation, Ahmed Akkari, then took a short bus ride to Damascus to shore up the Syrian grand mufti’s support for the coming backlash.
The real kingmaker of international scandal, however, was the Organization of the Islamic Conference, which held a summit in Mecca in early December. The same semi-fabricated dossier was circulated, resulting in a communiqué by the OIC that recommended the criminalization of “defamation to Islam and its values” and condemned the use of “freedom of expression as a pretext to defame religions”. As Jytte Klausen writes in The Cartoons That Shook the World:
The global Muslim population knew little about the cartoons until after the [OIC] summit meeting. It encouraged the religious establishments to become involved and various governments and parliaments in Islamic countries to publicly condemn the cartoons. The summit also made the boycott of Danish goods feasible.
Only then did the riots and embassy attacks commence, egged on by extremist clerics, dictatorial regimes and their proxies, many of which had to manufacture outrage where none spontaneously occurred. Syria, Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas all staged protests and allowed Western embassies or buildings in their demesnes to be raided or set alight. In total, 139 people were killed or died in the ensuing violence worldwide.
Now compare this affair to last week’s.
The obscurantism surrounding Innocence of Muslims could launch its own cult religion. From what we know so far, this amateur production was work of a soft-core pornographer from California who, along with his entire cast and crew, might have been duped into thinking they were making a cut-rate medieval adventure called “Desert Warriors.” The key hoaxster was Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, an Egyptian Coptic ex-con who masquerades in the press as a Jewish-funded Israeli-American—which sounds like a Sacha Baron Cohen sketch. Nakoula evidently had the dialogue of the rough cut dubbed over to make his Muhammad appear a sanguinary, bumbling homosexual pedophile.
Not only is the movie unwatchable, it was barely watched when its 14-minute “trailer” (which may or may not be the whole movie itself) was first uploaded to YouTube in June. But then along came a Saudi sheikh, Khaled Abdullah, who decided to broadcast it on September 8th on the Saudi state-owned Salafist TV station Al Nas, which is carried on the Egyptian state-owned satellite network NileSat. Were it not for Abdullah, as Jess Hill of the Global Mail put it, the video “would have remained an unwatched piece of trashy propaganda.” But of course Abdullah must have known that in advance.
Within about 48 hours of the Al Nas broadcast, the protests kicked off, first in Cairo, where 350 Egyptians—most of them football hooligans mixed with self-declared Bin Ladenists—stormed the US Embassy, tore down the Stars and Stripes and replaced it with a black flag bearing the Muslim Shahada creed—a flag often associated with jihadists. The crowds were implicitly cheered on (in Arabic) by the newly elected Muslim Brotherhood even as its representatives condemned the violence (in English). There also appears to have been some collusion between the rioters and the Brotherhood. Mahmoud Salem, a popular Egyptian blogger and early Mubarak opponent, says a friend of his who works at the US Embassy noticed that at 4 p.m. on September 11th, “the police and the army forces protecting the embassy had vanished, followed by the attack that you all watched on your plasma TV screens.” Worth noting, however, is how small the original Egyptian demonstration was: only about 2,000 in a country where many times that number easily fill the capital streets for political protests.
Libya was a different story. There, a cheap piece of Orientalist minstrelsy became a smokescreen for al-Qaeda-linked Salafists to strike the US Consulate in Benghazi, killing four American diplomats including Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, in what US officials are calling an opportunist terrorist attack, if not a pre-planned mission.
After Egypt and Libya, “rage” rallies rippled from Bangladesh to London. Among the worst hit was the US Embassy compound in Tunis, which was raided, its windows broken and trees set on fire. Again, the US flag was replaced by the black Shahada flag. In all, some 28 people have died in violence purportedly waged in reaction to Innocence of Muslims, including a dozen who were blown up in Kabul on September 18th by a female suicide bomber affiliated with Hizb-i-Islami, an Afghan Islamist group. As with the Jyllands-Posten affair, the chief instigator of this latest installment of carefully choreographed Muslim furor was not the “offensive” work itself but a regional player, in this case a Saudi cleric backed by regime money.
Of course, the real losers in this crisis are the people of Syria who must now really wonder if there isn’t a global conspiracy afoot in the service of Bashar al-Assad. Even as MiG fighter jets pounded Damascus, international attention was fixed everywhere else but on the one country where at 23,000 have been killed in the last year and a half. Residents of the city Kafranbel, where mordant wit appears to be the main export, openly mocked the hypocrisy of the clerics who are more outwardly incensed about an anti-Muslim YouTube video than they are about the pulverization of Muslims.
Hassan Nasrallah, the head of Hezbollah and a staunch ally of Assad, wasted no time in using Innocence of Muslims to distract from his own guilt: “America must understand … the US must understand that releasing the entire film will have dangerous, very dangerous, repercussions around the world,” Nasrallah intoned as tens of thousands of Hezbollah supporters poured into the streets of southern Beirut. Strangely, neither this Shiite cleric nor the Sunni Grand Mufti of Syria seem to mind the many blasphemous videos and reports documenting how shabiha thugs force Muslims to proclaim “there is no god but Bashar.” Why-they-hate-us sociologists and liberal advocates of censorship would do well to note this curious absence of holy outrage at secular Damascus.
In the Middle East, turning an insult into injury is a bit more complicated than it appears; otherwise, daily examples of anti-Islamic rhetoric or writing or propaganda emanating from the West would prompt daily assaults on Western institutions. Those fretting about America’s standing in the region ought to appreciate that behind almost every Muslim rage row lies a cynical opportunist with an agenda.