Why did they do it?

QuestionsThe reaction to the film ‘The Innocence of Muslims’ has been astonishing. It has been astonishing in its ferocity and in the violence and deaths that have been caused by those who have been offended. It has been astonishing because it is an obscure film that is apparently poorly made and has been dubbed after the initial filming – a film that would ordinarily have disappeared into obscurity if not for the response. It has been astonishing because of the issues that it has raised about the limits or otherwise of free speech and the culpability of those who provoked such reactions as well as those who have reacted so violently.

I should state for the record that I have not watched the film. I do not intend to. Because of that I am not in a position to make a judgement about it. (However the serious reviews I have read of the film have invariably said that as a piece of film-making it is terrible, and the version that has caused all of the offence is truly offensive). At least one of the actors in the film, Cindy Lee Garcia, is taking legal action against the film maker because she claims that the script in which she acted was not the version that has been produced. This comes from the BBC website:

Lawyers for Ms Garcia contend that changes in dialogue during post-production casts her in a false light.

“[Garcia] had a legally protected interest in her privacy and the right to be free from having hateful words put in her mouth or being depicted as a bigot,” the lawsuit says. “There was no mention of ‘Mohammed’ during filming or on set. There were no references made to religion nor was there any sexual content of which Ms Garcia was aware”

If that is true then it seems to me that the actions of the film maker are reprehensible. But should anyone be allowed to say anything? In this country we have laws against incitement to racial or religious hatred. We have laws against blasphemy, libel and slander. My limited view is that if this film had been made in this country it is possible that the film maker would have been in breach of some of those laws.

But whether or not there has been any legal breach, there is a moral breach of fundamental proportions here. It is not just bad manners to have produced a film that causes such offence it is hateful, spiteful, cruel. I would say the same about any ‘art’ that did the same thing about any religious belief.

And should the film maker have published this film at all when they could reasonably expect such offence to have been taken, and perhaps could realistically expect that there would be a violent reaction against it? Legally there may or may not be culpability there, but there is definitely moral culpability given the responses to the cartoons of Muhammed published in Denmark.

Some people have said that not to publish such a film because of the anticipated violent reaction is giving in to a form of bullying. It would mean that we never say provocative and cruel things about issues that will provoke a violent reaction so the violent people win. That’s one way of looking at things.

Or, should we all stop before we say provocative and cruel things about anyone, regardless of whether they will react violently? That way we all win.

It is difficult for me as a white, middle class Western Christian to understand the reaction against the film across the world. I have been upset and disappointed by films, books, plays and the like that have sought to ridicule Jesus. But it has never motivated me to a violent reaction. When I was a kid there was a massive outcry from Christians against Monty Python’s Life of Brian. In my home town the Christians protested so much that it was banned from showing at our local cinema. (When I eventually saw the film, as an adult who had studied at Bible College, I realised how clever the writers had been, how they were poking fun at religion in general but how Jesus, through his cameos, was not directly ridiculed. I would not show the film in church because not everyone would share that view, but it is not as bad as I was led to believe).

But nobody fired rocket propelled grenades at anyone.

Nobody gathered in the streets with placards proclaiming death to the perpetrators.

It seems to me that some of the over-reaction has been fuelled by extremists who seek to further their own cause by provoking the masses: creating headlines, sensationalist pictures of furious crowds and inciting anti-Western feeling. Christians should know all about masses being provoked (read Matthew 27:20-26 if you are uncertain). The BBC website again:

As was evident after Danish cartoons of Muhammad were published in 2006, politicians and religious leaders in the region used perceived insults to Islam to rally public support.

Protests began to spread from Egypt to other countries – spurred on perhaps by local media – because of a long-standing mistrust and anger at the West, something a number of groups have been able to capitalise upon.

Middle East analyst Magdi Abdelhadi says that although the film will have caused genuine offence among many Muslims, groups like Al Qaeda, whose black flag has been seen at some of the protests, have seized the opportunity to stir up unrest.

Disillusionment, lack of opportunity and anger at the establishment is also feeding into the protests, analysts say.

Often in the way that events are reported we are expected to choose between ‘right and wrong’; between ‘the good guys and the bad guys’; between ‘good and evil’. Sometimes those are the right choices. But sometimes we have to accept that nobody is right, nobody is innocent. There is culpability on all sides here from the film makers on the one hand to the crowd-inciters on the other.

How can we diffuse this and prevent it in the future? With genuine love for our neighbours that manifests itself as respect, peace, kindness, humility and forgiveness above all cultural, racial, religious and gender differences. I think Jesus had rather a lot to say about that.

There were some significant protests in London at the time of the second Gulf War. Many people carried the placard, “Not in my name” to express how they did not feel that the war was being prosecuted on their behalf and to disassociate themselves from it. In the same way I believe that the vast majority of Christians would want to say, “Not in my name” about this film. And the vast majority of Muslims would want to say, “Not in my name” about the violence and bloodshed in response.

It’s certainly not in my name. And definitely not in His name.

Be blessed, be a blessing

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