Understanding Middle Eastern Reactions to 'Innocence of Muslims'

09/26/2012 06:15 pm ET | Updated Nov 26, 2012

The YouTube video "Innocence of Muslims" can now be added to a lengthening list of portrayals of Muhammad that have led to violence, both threatened and real, along with calls for censorship. Examples include the Salman Rushdie affair, occasioned by the 1988 publication of The Satanic Verses, and the notorious Danish cartoons of 2006. Especially given the rank amateurishness of this video, why does it provoke so?

The question can be answered in a number of ways. By far the worst explanation holds that the violence is nothing more than an irrational overreaction to a silly video, one somehow predetermined by attitudes intrinsic to Islam, including intolerance or demagoguery. Muslims, it follows, should get themselves a reformation and chill out.

An altogether more promising explanation would begin by noting that the violence is concentrated in societies that are undergoing rapid change and are under severe, even revolutionary, strain. European and American history is filled with similar examples. Who are we to preach about violence? Deeper still, an explanation would include a longer view: a century-long eclipse of traditional forms of religious authority, which tended to constrain and blunt popular protest in the Middle East.

Anyone who wishes to understand the reaction to the video should also understand the video itself, especially its fusion of old and new. It is an insidious mashup of history and legend, a pastiche of polemic clichés and contemporary paranoia that says far more about its producers than about Muhammad.

Steve Klein, identified as one of the video's "producers," has defended it on the grounds that it has lessons to teach. There certainly is nothing subtle about the conclusions one is to draw. We begin in what appears to be modern-day Cairo, where violence against Christians leads a father to lecture his family: "Man + X = Islamic terrorism." But what is "X," the viewer and daughter ask? We now cut to a faux Arabia, where we learn that the answer lies in the story of Muhammad. The trailer's opening thus deliberately collapses present into past so as to ground contemporary violence in a primordial Islam of its own invention, one that issues from the blood lust, greed, and febrile sexuality of a fatherless boy. (About Muhammad's alleged sexual appetites, the less said, the better. Among other things, the portrayal is absurdly anachronistic: His companions ask if he's "gay.")

What follows the opening has been called offensive, erroneous, and misleading. It is far worse and more interesting than that. On the one hand, the names of the characters are familiar to anyone who knows genuine history. As far as it can be made out, so, too, is the arc of the story: An orphan in Arabia becomes a monotheist prophet, who receives revelations called the Quran and embarks upon military raids. Beyond that, however, everything is recognizable only as medieval slander or modern fantasy.

Genuine history tells us that already within a generation of Muhammad's death in 632, Christians were responding to the Islamic conquests. Having approved of war making when carried out by Byzantine emperors campaigning for Christ, they were reproving Muhammad for fighting for his faith: Do prophets carry swords, they asked? In the video the centuries-old harangue is rendered into the modern idiom of horror film, its protagonist a grotesque inversion of Caviezel's Jesus of The Passion of the Christ. The expansion of the Islamic state, preposterously reduced to the mass slaughter of men and the acquisition of booty and women, is also confused for compulsion to convert. This, too, is a familiar trope, but here it's given a striking twist that can only be explained within the particular American configuration of right-wing, Christian politics. "Move to Palestine or pay the extortion," Muhammad commands the conquered Jews of Arabia. The video would have us believe that Muhammad may be a leering psychopath, but he seems to be on the right side of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

The film's religious commitments are further illustrated in a figure named Waraqa ibn Nawfal. Here he appears only to explain that, far from being original or divine (as Muslims claim), Muhammad's "inspiration" was actually borrowed from Jewish and Christian scriptures. The argument that he plagiarized -- and, so, necessarily, that Islam is fraudulent -- is clinched when Waraqa dies and Muhammad's followers wonder why his revelations have come to an end, as well. This, too, is an old charge, but one that gained popularity in Middle Eastern Christian communities in 1980s, with the publication of a naïve book in Arabic called Priest and Prophet.

The video cannot tell us anything about Muhammad. An amateur production, driven by distinctly right-wing Christian obsessions but instantaneously accessible across the globe, it rather says something about the potent forces of globalization, especially in a lamentable state of interfaith misunderstanding.