As a professor of Islamic studies I have a professional responsibility to stay abreast of incidents like those prompted by a recent 13-minute video containing footage by a certain “Sam Bacile” insulting to the Prophet Muhammad, but as a moral question why should I, as an individual, care what Egyptians and Libyans think about a film about which I was not consulted and which I could not have prevented by any legal means even if I had prior knowledge of it? American Muslims don’t owe anyone an explanation for what happened in Libya or Egypt, any more than they owe Libyans or Egyptians an explanation for how the film got made. We had nothing to do with it. (For background, see articles from WSJ, NPR, and helpful posts from Sarah Posner and Max Blumenthal, and commentary from Glenn Greenwald.)
As I write, many Muslims are making clear that the actions of the killers of Ambassador Christopher Stevens are not representative of Islam and that what they are doing is much more damaging to Muslims than the film which served as a catalyst to their actions. That is true, but so what? The subtext of such statements is: Americans are too stupid to understand that people are only responsible for those things which they have some power to change, and that being Muslim does not suddenly make you answerable for something someone else did in another country. It makes about as much sense to ask your local Lutheran pastor to condemn acts of sexual abuse by Catholic priests in Ireland as it does to ask an American Muslim to condemn violence committed by Egyptians and Libyans in their own countries. Did the attackers in Libya consult with me about it? Did they draw inspiration from something I wrote? Are they known associates of mine with whom I cooperate on other issues?
But my impatience is not directed only at those who assign collective guilt to Muslims. I also grow increasingly frustrated with other Muslims who seem to have not the slightest compunction about including me in their particular version of “we” and “us” without asking me, who think that if Muslims are doing it or if it is happening to Muslims anywhere it is by definition an “Islamic” cause which I am obligated to address on those terms. In actuality, I have no special duty to someone living on the other side of the world whose parents happened to be Muslim. But I do have a duty to anyone who is tortured, murdered, robbed of their dignity, and made to live in fear if there is something I can do about it and I understand enough to act or speak responsibly. (As it happens, such victims are frequently Muslims, and frequently it is my own country that is victimizing them.)
Part of what makes collective Muslim guilt/responsibility so problematic is that it is often impossible for any ordinary citizen to acquire enough information to make good judgments about what is happening in another country beyond articulating general moral principles, especially for recent events. The attack in Libya is a good example. The initial reports were that a group of protesters angered by the Bacile film overreacted and killed several American diplomats, but now reports come out that this was a pre-planned attack carried out under the cover of the protests, a significant difference that must be accounted for by those who are eager to comment on how Muslims are supposed to react to mockery of the Prophet Muhammad. Praying five times a day and fasting in Ramadan does not give American Muslims special insight into what is happening in Benghazi. Even the identity of the filmmaker, Sam Bacile, who was described as an Israeli in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Associated Press, may be a fake.
Still, while I reject collective guilt or responsibility, I do feel that Muslims have a certain moral obligation to represent themselves accurately, and they ought to have a certain sympathy for people who do not always know that much about Muslims and have to make judgments based on whatever information they have. When someone asks a question about Islam in good faith, those people who know the most about it (usually Muslims themselves) should provide a good faith answer. That is quite different from responding to cynical accusations in the form of a question such as, “Will you condemn…?” or “Why aren’t Muslims doing more to stop this?” Muslims should be contemptuous towards such prompts, which aren’t really questions at all.
Personally I find the Bacile footage repugnant, but at the same time so inept and jejune that it is difficult to sustain any serious level of indignation. This film was apparently made in the United States, and in this country freedom of expression is taken quite seriously, and Muslims here and around the world need to understand that the possibility of such hurtful garbage is part of a trade-off that works very well for observant Muslims in the United States. In the American context one cannot disentangle one’s freedom to wear a turban, pray in a public park, and hand out free Qurans on campus from the freedom of a vulgar propagandist to shoot a film making fun of everything Muslims hold dear. If Muslims think the coercive power of the state should be brought to bear against people making movies that ridicule Muslims, why would they feel secure against that power being used against Muslims who want to print translations of the Quran? If you support free speech, that means you don’t demand that the state intervene to stop speech that is awful and hurtful. That’s the whole point.
In a country of 300 million people with access to technology that allows anyone with a video camera and a laptop to put a movie on YouTube, it was inevitable that a film such Bacile’s would be made and publicized. The next film will be worse: perhaps it will have high production values and present the Prophet Muhammad more plausibly as something other than what Muslims believe him to be. Can anyone doubt this will happen? The most horrible imagery imaginable is already freely available on the Internet, and an un-sympathetic portrayal of the Prophet Muhammad by non-Muslims is far from the worst thing out there. Also, not to make too small a point, but non-Muslims are no more obligated to refrain from pictorial representations of the Prophet Muhammad than they are to refrain from alcohol or gambling. One may not like this, but it is reality. We can keep such ugliness as Bacile’s film to a minimum by persuasion and education, not appeals to violence and intimidation.
If the story of “Sam Bacile” were written as a Hollywood script, it would have been dismissed as implausible even for a work of fiction. Those who followed the story were first led to believe that the grotesquely juvenile film was the work of Terry Jones, the Florida pastor who became famous for wanting to burn the Quran in the midst of the Park51 brouhaha two years ago. Then we were introduced to one Morris Sadek, a Coptic Christian whose stature and gravitas roughly equals that of Jones, who was thought to have had a role, and whose participation has caused some middle-aged Coptic women to apparently beat him up on the street. Next, the name Sam Bacile appeared in the mainstream press, which reported that he was an Israeli Jew with the financial backing of “100 Jewish donors” whose motivation for making the film was to help Israel by exposing the truth about its enemies. Steve Klein, a Christian evangelical Vietnam veteran who spends his spare time rooting out Muslim Brotherhood sleeper cells in California, was also said to have had a role in the film, and said he knew “Bacile” but denied that he was a Jew or Israeli. Finally the AP tracked down “Bacile” who is actually one Nakoula Bassely Nakoula, a convicted fraudster and, as it happens, a Coptic Christian. Even stranger, the cast and crew of the film claim that they did not know that the film’s subject matter was Muhammad at all. Indeed, the casting call listed the main character as “George” and “young George,” and nothing else about the description of the film indicated its subject matter. They were overdubbed.
Nakoula, it would seem, lies to everyone about everything. He lied to the actors about the film. Then he lied to the press about being an Israeli and a Jew with millions in Jewish money behind him, an act of anti-Semitism and recklessness at which I still marvel. Then, when the AP came knocking at his door, as if to encapsulate his stupidity and utter mendacity, he showed the reporter his driver’s license but placed his finger over his middle name Bassely (clearly the origin of “Bacile”).
For much more on this story, read about Nakoula, the cast and crew, the battle in Benghazi, the production company responsible, and great run-downs by Juan Cole, Omid Safi, and Sheila Musaji, Max Blumenthal, Dan Murphy. Also, a NYT story about how American Muslims organization responded to the situation, relevant to my remarks above.