The literal and figurative firestorm erupting worldwide over the YouTube film “The Innocence of Islam” provokes the sense of despair one gets watching a couple divorce: The pretext for the latest quarrel is threadbare. Everyone sees that. But the divorce, that’s inevitable. Sometimes two people just need to let go and go their own separate ways.
Of course, it’s easier to divorce than it is to share a crowded planet. So we settle now into something akin to cultural warfare. If all this is really about the oil, then I say let’s become energy independent, and quickly.
A peculiar rite of passage among young American males goes as follows: Five young guys in a car. The driver, a reckless boy bent on demonstrating his fearlessness curses God. “C’mon, God,” he growls, “Hit me with a lightning bolt? I dare you.” The passengers cower. What if there is a God? What if he could be provoked to wrath by such stunts? I recall cowering in my seat wishing the driver would shut up. Why take chances with destiny?
I had the same reaction watching Monty Python’s “Life of Brian.” This mockery of Jesus crossed a line, didn’t it? I giggled at the film hoping the heavens wouldn’t notice. The film became tedious quickly enough. I’ve lost my taste for the divine. Mocking prophets is just, well, juvenile. Thinking God could be moved to wrath by raucous juvenilia is the real blasphemy.
So when I heard about “The Innocence of Islam,” I was at first indifferent. Then violence erupted around the world. A U.S. ambassador was killed. My own government took the producer of the film, Sam Bacile, into custody on some thin pretext involving his parole status. Why all this fuss? I booted up the film: It does not even rise to the level of locker room humor. I hoped for a guilty chuckle or two. It was too artless even for that.
But the film enflamed the Arab world. We are warned here in the West that we need to take seriously not just the governments in the Arab world, but the people too. Toe the line or suffer a flash mob. I feel like I just got mugged.
A friend rebuked me for this harsh assessment. We are amused by Monty Python because we can afford to be. The oppressed, why they have nothing. An insult to Allah is rubbing salt in socioeconomic wounds, he says. There is something to that assessment.
We’ve harvested oil in the Middle East for a lifetime now with little thought to the people of the region. We’ve propped up dictators. We’ve scorned cries for justice. We’ve guzzled the region’s oil and then waged wars based on pretext, wars that have costs hundreds of thousands of lives. It is little wonder we are reviled in the region. This new idiotic film is the last straw; it is secularism’s assault on the last shard of dignity remaining to a people dispossessed, their faith.
I get that, but it does not inspire me to contemplate existential suicide. I’m not prepared to say that the First Amendment’s protection of freedom of expression ought to yield to the overheated sensibilities of those whose honor is so easily insulted. When I see calls for the arrest and punishment of Sam Bacile for being, well, an imbecile, I cringe. There seems to be a creeping form of cynicism on the left just now: I disagree with what you just said but I will fight to the death for your right to say it, unless you are a member of a protected class or an oppressed people, in which case I yield the floor to your rage and ask you to forgive me my inconvenient principles. Sorry, that’s not a step I can take. The creepiest form of condescension is toleration of behavior you otherwise despise because you understand why the actor can’t help but to behave that way.
America didn’t produce “The Innocence of Islam.” Sam Bacile and his goofy buddies did. And they did it to make people angry. It’s not a crime in the United States for a person to say something outrageous. I am not reassured by some gathering gloom of moral equivalence to learn that in Egypt it was unlawful to produce copies of Dan Brown’s “The DaVinci Code.” The book was light entertainment. I was not insulted to the core or driven to distraction to read that Jesus might not be divine. I don’t want government telling me what I can and cannot read, view or think.
So we have a clash of cultures, a clash of fundamental values. I can accept that. But I refuse to accept a violent reaction to the values I hold as somehow appropriate. If this is a divorce and I am forced to make a choice, I will choose freedom of expression. That does not make me a closet bigot.
The raging mobs in the Middle East terrify me. Their hatred of my values threatens me. But I am not prepared to run and hide my values. I’ll stand my ground, come what may.
Sam Bacile’s film was idiotic drivel. The rising tide of rage in the Arab world in response to the film is a threat I take seriously. If we bought this rage for the price of cheap oil, I say find a new energy source, and quickly. Just don’t try to force me to knuckle under to the rage of the latest flash mob. It ain’t happening. My prophet isn’t wearing army boots. Sorry.