The publication of Salman Rushdie’s memoir Joseph Anton coincided with last week’s violent protests in the Middle East over a rubbish film about Mohammed. Quite a coincidence, no? Rushdie’s memoir recounts primarily his traumatic years on the run following Ayatollah Khomeini’s infamous fatwa.
Quick refresher: In 1988 Rushdie published The Satanic Verses, a novel which included elements inspired by the life of Mohammad. The book was met with violent protest across the Muslim world, including accusations of blasphemy, book and effigy burnings, and death threats against not only Rushdie but also publishers and translators of the book (some of which were tragically successful).
Sounds similar to the events of the past week, no? Murdered ambassadors and consular workers. Burning flag. Destroyed buildings. Rage and hate directed at something associated with disparaging Mohammed. Of course, there’s a huge difference. Rushdie’s book has literary merit, while Innocence of Muslims is utter garbage. In fact the latter makes recent events especially disturbing. It’s one thing to rage against something with potential influence; it’s another to murder over a film clip impossible to get through because it’s just that bad.
Nevertheless, at the core of both controversies is a clash of values, those of the West and those of religious Islam, which states that defaming Mohammed in any way is blasphemous. In Islam, Mohammed trumpets a person’s right to freedom of speech. Not so in the United States, as this week’s IJN editorial points out. So there is a clash. In most Western cultures, no one, least of all not G-d, is exempt from satire, ridicule or reproach. Caricatures and political cartoons form a cornerstone of our political discourse. Some of the most popular television series consistently poke fun at, among others, the Divine (like Colorado’s homegrown South Park). There are no exceptions.
Are some people offended? Of course. Do they burn down television studios? Not that we know of. Take, for example, the Broadway musical self-described religious satire Book of Mormon. We can’t imagine the show, penned by the people behind the above-mentioned South Park, sticks to doctrine. But instead of raging, some Mormon commentators have described it as looking “in a fun-house mirror. The reflection is hilarious but not really you.” (Richard Busman on CNN). In other words, have a laugh. And anyone remember Monty Python’s Life of Brian?
The truth is that through the centuries, most cultures and religions learn the art and humor of self-deprecation. One could argue that Jews, with the likes of Woody Allen and Mel Brooks, have perfected the art. And if you find someone like Mel Brooks offensive, there’s a simple solution: Don’t watch his movies.
We realize that circumstances surrounding The Innocence of Muslims are different. It appears the filmmakers were out to offend and Islam-bash, which is miles away from clever satire, usually best done by members of the targeted group. (Worth noting though that in the case of Rushdie, this was not his motivation, yet he was still dealt the same response.) But the principle still applies: Don’t like it? Don’t watch it.
Instead, by choosing to behave violently, these Muslims are first of all, giving audience to a film that would never otherwise have made it anywhere other than a cyber trash can, but second, and more tragically, these violent protesters are only succeeding in re-enforcing all the negative stereotypes about Islam that fuel such amateurish projects at The Innocence of Muslims.