It was quite a week for fanatics. A juvenile and insulting movie about the Prophet Muhammad that had drawn barely a dozen people when it premiered in Hollywood this summer hit the big time through YouTube. Muslim rioters went on rampages across the Islamic world, killing four Americans, including the ambassador to Libya. Broad brushes went to work, falsely painting that world by the colors of murderous minorities. Our own outraged candidate for president, always the faithful opportunist, contributed his own bit of fanaticism by falsely blaming the president for apologizing for the attacks.
Mitt Romney said something stupid. That’s nothing new. He’ll get over it and move on to his next blunder. He’s not the issue. Nor is President Obama’s response: there’s only so much you can do in the face of a mob short of becoming one against it, particularly when rabble masquerading as piety is fueling the madness—in the Islamic world and in the United States.
The man who made the film is a convicted felon with a taste for crystal meth, which is known to trigger delusions almost as powerful as those of religious fanatics, and sometimes almost as violent. His name is Nakoula Basseley, an Egyptian-American. At first he duped the Wall Street Journal enough to pass himself off as an Israeli-American who’d made the film with the backing of Jewish donors. That was a lie, relying on that outdated anti-Semitic standard of Christian theology: whenever anything goes wrong, blame the Jews. The man is in fact a Coptic Christian, from that Orthodox sect of Christians who make up roughly 9 percent of Egypt’s population, though he has closer kinships with mad Islamophobes like Gainesville’s Terry Jones of “Burn a Koran Day” fame.
This much is true: Copts don’t have it easy in Egypt. They’re treated the way blacks were treated in American’s pre-civil rights South. They’re frequently persecuted. The police give them little protection. They’re subject to arbitrary arrest and are often law enforcement’s default scapegoat. The former Egyptian regime of Hosni Mubarak was no more respectful of Copts than its Muslim Brotherhood successor regime. Copts’ exile community, including close to half a million adherents in the United States, can occasionally muster political pressure to ease their communities’ plight back home. Being hostage to religion’s natural effluents, they’re not without fanatics of their own.
It’s difficult to say what’s more offensive about Basseley’s movie: the acting and dialogue fit for a 1970s porn flick, the caricaturing of religion—poor persecuted Christians against bloodthirsty Muslims led by a prophet with a taste for pedophilia—or the insult to Islam.
But let’s be clear: Basseley had every right to make the movie. He has every right to ridicule the Prophet, just as he would have had every right to ridicule Mitt Romney or Barack Obama or the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt if he so chose. He is an offensive moviemaker. He is not, in this regard, a lawbreaker. The wrong in this equation is the response of fundamentalists in the Muslim world, which is no less justifiable than the way it responded to the famous “Muhammad cartoons” in a Danish newspaper in 2005, or to The Satanic Verses, Salman Rushdie’s novel, in 1988.
The Satanic Verses, one of the great novels of the 20th century, made light of the prophet and some of his teachings, and ridiculed Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini, who responded with a death sentence on Rushdie. Khomeini’s response was more offensive than the vilest parodies that could be written or play-acted about Muhammad, whose sacredness does not extend to those who don’t wish to believe in it any more than Christ’s or the Mormon angel Moroni’s do. It was a vile response for the bloodletting it incited: Riots broke out against The Satanic Verses, dozens of people were killed in several countries, including translators of the book, and Rushdie had to live in hiding for a decade. In the twisted way of fundamentalist thinking, repeated in the murder of the four Americans in Libya and a few rioters and bystanders since, the killing of a human being was more justifiable than a mere verbal or written insult to a cherished religious figure—an insult that does no more harm to that figure, or to its believers, than a change in weather over Lake Okeechobee or the mood of wildebeests in the Serengeti.
Rushdie wrote a great book. Basseley made an obscene movie. But quality and artistic merit are not the gatekeepers of free expression. Both had the right to do what they did. That right must be defended for both. That doesn’t mean the content need be defended, or reactions exploited for political gain. So before ridiculing only those Muslim fundamentalists, let’s not pretend not to have our own, who apply the same perverted sense of justice by murdering gays or abortionists in the name of God or forbidding flag-burning in the name of freedom. The United States would look like a union of degenerates, too, if it were painted by the colors of its reactionary gangs, or its occasional replicas on the American electoral theater. They give us plenty to apologize for.