What Would Muhammad Do about the Film Demeaning Him?

Pro-peace, anti-violence, pro-islam demonstration in Libya

12 Essential points about the offensive film  on the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, and the subsequent reactions in Libya & Egypt

[This essay is by Omid Safi,  Professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and the author of several books on Islam, including Memories of Muhammad, a biography.  This essay was written on Sept. 12, 2012. Click on the photo above to expand it.]

The hateful piece of propaganda about the Prophet Muhammad, known as “Innocence of Muslims” continues to have repercussions around the world, due to the attacks on the US Embassy in Libya and Egypt.  

There is no mistaking the offensive nature of the film, as it accusing the Prophet of having been a womanizer, a fool, a sexual pervert, and a homosexual (though that last “insult” plays into homophobia). 

There is also no mistaking the fact that the murder of the four Americans, including Ambassador Stevens, was cruel and barbaric by any measure.

 Here are twelve points to keep in mind, in an attempt to bring some sanity to a controversy that has already generated far more heat than light:

1)  This is not an issue of Freedom of Speech vs. religious sensitivity.
Every time that there is an offensive piece written to target Muslim sensitivities, there is the temptation to cast it as an issue of “freedom of speech,”  held to be absolute, vs. the religious sensitivity of Muslims.    That framework is either unhelpful or at best only partially helpful.   In reality, pieces like the so-called “Innocence of Muslims” film are best classified as “hate speech.”  They seem to be of the same genre as anti-Semitic films of the 1930’s or Birth of the Nation KKK movies.

The issue of freedom of speech vs. religious sensitivity also misses the point because it assumes—falsely—that Muslims are only capable of religious sensitivity.    Muslims, whether in relatively free societies like Turkey or under more oppressive regimes like Iran and Saudi Arabia have rich traditions of filmmaking, political cartoons, and satire.   Many journalists and satirists in these countries are actually paying a price for their upholding of freedom of speech.    Those are the people that are truly deserving of the spotlight, not the hate propaganda producers.

2)   Al-Qaeda, not Libyans, is behind the murder of the US ambassador
The assassination of the US ambassador is not the work of the Libyan people, or religious groups, but  rather the work of al-Qaeda  www.cnn.com/2012/09/12/world/africa/libya-attack-jihadists/index.html?hpt=hp_c1    The overlapping timing with the anniversary of 9/11 lends credence to this being an al-Qaeda plot that was pre-planned.   So does the heavy amount of weaponry carried to the assault on the US compound.   

3)  The Libyan authorities and religious scholars have condemned this attack.
  The Libyan President condemned the attacks latimesblogs.latimes.com/world_now/2012/09/us-ambassador-killed-libya.html  in clear and unequivocal terms.  President Mohamed Magariaf said:

"We refuse that our nation's lands be used for cowardice and revengeful acts. It is not a victory for God's Sharia or his prophet for such disgusting acts to take place….We apologize to the United States, the people of America, and the entire world. We and the American government are standing on the same side, we stand on the same side against outlaws."

 4)  The Libyan people have demonstrated against the assassination of the ambassador.  
This is one of the more underreported aspects of this crisis so far, the fact that Libyan people’s own voice has not been heard from in the Western press.    Hopefully the photo above will go some ways towards addressing that.   (There are a few endearing spelling mistakes, like “Profit” for “Prophet”; “Pehavior” for “behavior”).

5)   The producers of the film openly admit to being Islam-haters.
The person originally identified as the producer, "Sam Bacile", is a shadowy, fictional figure. See  www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2012/09/muhammad-film-consultant-sam-bacile-is-not-israeli-and-not-a-real-name/262290/       Whoever the producer is, he has now gone into hiding, having achieving his insidious aim of throwing fuel on the flame.

If the initial reports on Wall St. Journal and the Guardian were to have been believed, the “film” was produced by an Israeli real estate agent based in California who admitted his hatred for Islam by confessing his view that “Islam is a cancer.”   But it turns out these reports were false; "Bacile" is neither an Israeli nor a Jew.  

Indeed, the latest report by the AP suggests that “Sam Bacile” is in fact a fabricated identity by an American Coptic extremist, Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, who concocted the story of the Israeli real estate/filmmaker persona.   “Bacile” might in fact be an alternate spelling of his own middle name, Basseley.

Nakoula is a convicted con-artist, who has gone to jail for financial fraud.    You can see the United States Court District court documents here.   He had invented 13 fictitious identities, including "P.J. Tobacco."   He is now in custody for violating parole, which required he not use any pseudonyms.

6)   The producer—whoever he is—has the right to produce his propaganda, even if it is hateful speech.  
However, we do not have the obligation to provide him with a podium by offering him the very media access that he (like many other extremists) craves.   He confesses that he showed the film to a mostly empty movie theater in Hollywood over the summer. See www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/world/la-fg-libya-filmmaker-20120913,0,1418897,full.story   Posting the film  on YouTube was a calculated and manipulated campaign to generate publicity by appealing to the most hateful of people in every faith community.

7)  The distribution of the film has benefited from Terry Jones  --  yes, the same Qur’an-burning pastor in Florida of whom the President Obama and General Petraeus have said that his reckless and hateful actions were endangering the lives of American citizens.  See

8)   The YouTube “film” was picked up by a fringe group of Coptic radicals. Copts are indigenous Egyptian Christians who have at times had a tense relationship with the Muslim majority, although the majority of the Copts supported the overthrow of Mubarak during the Arab Spring uprisings in Egypt.   Mainstream Coptic organizations in Egypt have already condemned this movie, and the “film” does not represent the views of Copts.

9)   American Muslim organizations have uniformly condemned the assassination of the American Ambassador.   
This includes Council for American Islamic Relation ; Islamic Society of North America; and Islamic Circle of North America

10)   This violent response to assaults on the dignity of the Prophet is not the example of the Prophet himself.  
Simply put, this is not What Muhammad Would Do.  The Prophet Muhammad himself was repeatedly mocked, cursed, and even stoned during his life.   As I documented in my book, Memories of Muhammad, his enemies even paid to have children stone him, yet Muhammad refused to curse enemies, as he was sent as a “mercy to all the worlds” according to the words of the Qur’an.

Furthermore, the Qur’an lays out an ethical standard for how one is to respond to evil, and the command is clear: “Repel evil with something that is better, lovelier.”    Moments like this teach people of faith, of all faith, any faith, including the Islamic faith,  to reach deep into their hearts and live out the true meanings of their creeds.

As the American Muslim playwright Wajahat Ali said: 

“By choosing violence as a response, the embassy attackers ironically & tragically betray the legacy, spirit & wisdom of the Prophet Muhammad --  he who was repeatedly insulted, mocked, and pelted with trash and stones but chose to reply with patient etiquette and generosity. Extremism begets extremism. This tragedy in Libya calls for moderation & reconciliation. Voices of calm, understanding & peace must now rise and be heard. #benghazi”

 11)  The producers of the film lied to their actors and crew about the content of the film.  
The crew of the film did not know that this was an anti-Muhammad film.  The producers went back and dubbed in the anti-Muhammad message into it post-production.(See www.onthemedia.org/blogs/on-the-media/2012/sep/12/religious-references-innocence-muslims-dubbed/  )  In other words, the deception about the “film” is not just about the funders and producers, they even deceived the actors in the “film.”  See interview with one of the actresses here:

12)  We have a choice how to respond.
It is up to us, to each of us, to decide which path to pursue:   Each of us can choose to pursue the path of extremists in the Jewish community (who certainly exist, but -- despite false allegations -- equally certainly did not fund the film, which was so amatueurish that it did not require fancy funding; the extremists in the Christian community that spread the “film”;  or the path of the extremists of the Muslim community that reacted to the “film” with violence.

Or, we can respond to these catastrophes the way that President Obama reacted to the anniversary of 9/11 by reminding us that our fates are bound up together.    Obama said --  see www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2024806/Barack-Obama-praises-Muslim-help-9-11-attacks.html#ixzz26JIJJXMw:  “There's no them and us --  it's just us.”

As Dr. King reminded us, we are caught up in an inescapable network of mutuality.  

We can find examples of this same ethical commitment in the Muslim community, such as the pictures of the courageous Libyans who shared their humanity, their grief, and their hearts with Americans. It is the pictures of these Libyans that grace this essay.



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