Western intellectuals have already started the process of surrender to Islam. In recent weeks, the accustomed defenders of the cultural values of the West have begun laying the doctrinal groundwork for abrogation of free speech, open inquiry, and freedom of expression in response to Islamist demands for an international regime of censorship of critical remarks directed against Mohammed, Muslim teachings, and accepted Islamic practice.
Recently at the blog of the New York Review of Books, the religions scholar Malise Ruthven posted an entry entitled “Can Islam be Criticized?.” Discussing the “riots from Benghazi to Kabul” in response to the Innocence of Muslims internet trailer, Ruthven sought to formulate a “crucial difference between being seen to trash the image of Muhammad publicly, as in the case of the Danish cartoons and the YouTube clip, and the deconstruction of that image using the tools of modern scholarship.” Ruthven contrasted with Innocence of Muslims historian Tom Holland’s documentary Islam: The Untold Story, a critical inquiry into the “historicity of the Arabian prophet” on the basis of Holland’s book In the Shadow of the Sword: The Birth of Islam and the Rise of the Global Arab Empire. While drawing protests from some Islamic scholars, the documentary aired on the British Channel Four television network as well as online without subsequent tumult, although numerous abusive Twitter messages to Holland prompted a cancelation of a public screening and discussion of the documentary.
Ruthven saw in “[t]hese contrasting responses” the “possibility of a two-pronged approach to the free speech issues raised by images of the Prophet.” While Ruthven would defend critical inquiry into Islam, he “might” categorize “‘[i]nsulting’ the Prophet with the intent of stirring up hatred … as a form of ‘hate speech’ comparable to anti-Semitism, racism, flag desecration, or Holocaust denial … forbidden by law in many countries.” This was “because the sacred image of the Prophet has become a fundamental part of how Muslim communities have come to define themselves.” Ruthven admitted that “in practice it may be difficult to draw the line between ‘insult’ and ‘criticism’” but thought that “if there is a distinction it must lie in intention.”
Innocence of Muslims itself, though, shows just how illusory any such line envisioned by Ruthven would be. As articles by this author have previously discussed (see here and here), this film, however poorly made, references controversial facets of the biography of Islam’s prophet Muhammad discussed in canonical Islamic sources. The conservative German website “Politically Incorrect” (PI), for example, has posted several entries citing the historical basis for the trailer’s several scenes. One such posting is in both German and in English at PI’s small English-language webpage.
Another extensive PI entry contains an article written in German by a Christian evangelical pastor who comes from an Orthodox Arab family in Sudan and has found political asylum in Germany, Fouad Adel. Entitled “Battlefield of Facts: Muhammad’s Biography & Film ‘Innocence of Muslims’ [Schlachtfeld der Fakten: Mohammads Biographie & Film 'Innocence of Muslims'],” the article analyzes in disturbing detail several recounted aspects of Muhammad’s life — both those depicted in Innocence of Muslims and others. Adel thereby comes to the conclusion that “Satan allows himself to be devotedly honored by Muslims as the omnipotent and all-cunning Allah.” Similarly, while “Jesus Christ is the King of Peace, Muhammad was a warlord and murderer,” and while “Jesus Christ lives from eternity to eternity, Muhammad has earned eternal death.”
Yet another PI entry links to an internet video produced by the German branch of the Arab Christian broadcaster al-Hayat (Life) TV. As the Coptic Egyptian-American Raymond Ibrahim has written at National Review Online (NRO), al-Hayat features many Muslim apostates along with what the Arabic newspaper al-Insan al-Jadid describes as Islam’s “Public Enemy #1,” the Coptic priest Father Zakaria Botros. These individuals have used critical inquiry to refute Islam and make significant evangelical inroads into Muslim communities worldwide. The al-Hayat/Leben TV video similarly comes from the broadcaster’s Islam unter der Lupe (Islam under the Magnifying Glass) series and presents the former German Muslim Barino Barsoum sequentially discussing the Islamic documentation in sources such as the Koran for the scenes of Innocence of Muslims. Although Barsoum criticizes various “tasteless [geschmacklos]” portrayals in the film and rejects one scene’s insinuation that all Muslims are terrorists, Barsoum otherwise finds a strong basis in Islamic orthodoxy for the film’s depictions.
As the Egyptian-American convert to Christianity Nonie Darwish has written, Innocence of Muslims‘ “stories were not the invention of the producer of the film; they were tasteless and unholy, but they are all found in Muslim scriptures.” Darwish adds that “[w]hen the life and acts of Mohammed were written and documented by Muslims, it was a source of pride for them; but in the 21st century it has become a source of shame, and now they cannot go back and remove what they already have written.” For Darwish, the result in modern eyes is a “shady reputation” for Muhammad.
Under these circumstances and in light of traditional sharia stipulations mandating death for “insulting the prophet” or for leaving Islam, any criticism of Islam is inherently fraught with danger. Darwish observes that “anything minor, such as saying that Mohammed married a nine-year-old — a fact” (discussed in Innocence of Muslims) – could come across “in [a] way that might be perceived as critical” and thus “considered an ‘insult.’ As another Islam unter der Lupe video posted at PI concurs: “Muslims would not have reacted otherwise to a better and more decent presentation of the facts of Muhammad’s biography” than that in Innocence of Muslims. “Islam prohibits every kind of criticism of Muhammad and often makes no distinction between objective or spurious criticism.” Muslims often condemn the various videos of al-Hayat/Leben TV as “provocative [hetzerisch].”
Ruthven might easily dismiss the shoddy Innocence of Muslims as a mere insult worthy of prohibition. The movie’s producer, Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, had a criminal record of bank fraud and methamphetamine manufacture and was on probation while making the film. Other individuals duped by Nakoula into making Innocence of Muslims under the cover story of an ancient desert epic include the porn stars Tom Dix and Amina Noir. Like Nakoula, the film’s director, Robert Brownall, often used an alias (Alan Roberts) and, like Dix and Noir, had previously produced porn films. Another actor in the film, Cindy Lee Garcia, meanwhile, is suing Google, Inc., the parent company of the film’s YouTube online distributor, for copyright infringement, arguing that she never contractually released her rights to Nakoula or a production company. Only in America, some would say.
Yet as the foregoing analysis shows, many individuals have used this film deemed an insult by Ruthven precisely as a “teaching moment” to engage in intellectual inquiry into Islam. One of PI’s directors, Michael Stürzenberger, has also proposed continuing this process beyond the internet in a public screening of Innocence of Muslims with a subsequent critical discussion among various scholars from multiple belief backgrounds. How will Ruthven or anyone else judge these actions and the intentions behind them? Additionally, the Canadian-Iranian Muslim apostate Ali Sina has announced an intention to produce a canonically correct biographical movie about Muhammad on the basis of Islamic sources, presumably treating much of the same subject matter as Innocence of Muslims. Will any such film, presumably of higher quality than Nakoula’s work, qualify as insult or intellectual inquiry?
Beyond Ruthven’s dichotomy of insult/inquiry, there are other categories involving free expression concerning Islam. As Pastor Adel demonstrates, some seek not to insult cavalierly or to inquire dispassionately into, but rather to condemn iconoclastically Islam on the basis of religious zeal for what believers like Adel regard as the real true faith. How is such a clash of faiths amenable to a final judgment among mortals? Beyond dealing with Islam per se, there has also arisen a proposal by the Berlin Cinema for Peace foundation, since withdrawn for fear of the consequences, to show Innocence of Muslims amidst various critical and/or hostile cinematic treatments of religion. Shall not even a detached examination of a film like Innocence of Muslims be permissible?
Amidst all such uncertainty, noted JihadwatcherRobert Spencer asks of the “formerly respectable” Ruthven, “Who will judge intentions, once Ruthven’s authoritarian law is passed?” “What will,” Spencer elaborates, “Ruthven do if someone in power decides that something he has written about Islam was actually intended to ‘insult’ Muslims, rather than to provide reasonable ‘criticism’?” In his 1984 book Islam in the World, for example, Ruthven writes (page 64) that Muhammad was sometimes “utterly ruthless, resorting to war, assassination, even massacre.” The orthodox view of Muhammad’s rule in Medina as a “desert utopia” is “nonsense” (89). Moreover, “many Europeans have found dull, repetitious, and incoherent” the Koran, a book that has a “complete absence of sequentiality” (103).
More fundamentally, why should intentions matter in evaluating expression? Why does bad faith in motive invalidate the propriety of a statement whose content is otherwise valid? Are political advertisements, for example, always in “good faith”?
In the end, freedom-loving individuals would do well to reject Ruthven’s “invitation to the suicide of the free press” denounced by Spencer. The drawing of various lines around expression concerning religious topics is best left to private individuals, and not public authorities.By Andrew E. Harrod