Kalavai Venkat
Innocence of Muslims: An Unreasonable Controversy
This article originally appeared in centreright.in. CRI content has now been subsumed in swarajyamag.com. The views expressed here are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of the editors of swarajyamag.com

Sam Bacile’s movie, Innocence of Muslims (click here for a trailer of the movie), negatively portrays Muhammad and calls Islam a cancer. A frightened Muhammad is suggestively shown as performing oral sex on his first wife Khadija, a slave trader, pedophile, lusting after his own daughter-in-law Zainab, murdering his Jewish captive Kinana in front of his beautiful wife Safiyyah, and being beaten by slippers by his wives after they catch him making it out with a maid servant.

Muslims in Libya retaliated by violently protesting against the movie and killing four American diplomats. The Islamic protestors made their intention clear by sending the message: “Stop offending Islam or die!” Bacile went into hiding. President Obama, while condemning the killings also appeased the Muslims by declaring that “the United States rejects efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others.”

The controversy surrounding Innocence of Muslims follows a well-known pattern:

  1. The offending truth: A book or movie offending Muslim sensibilities is released even though the contents are based on the Islamic sources themselves.
  2. Organized riots: A section of Muslim leadership systematically campaigns against the book or movie and mobilizes rioters, who may not have read the book or seen the movie but go on a rampage.
  3. The Appeasement: Non-Muslims attempt to appease the rioting Muslims by conceding that Islam cannot be denigrated, and the author or director of the offending book or movie goes into hiding.

Let us examine each aspect of this pattern of behavior.

The offending truth

I am not implying that a fictional book or movie that offends sensibilities must be suppressed because if that were the criterion, The New Testament and The Quran must be banned. I am merely pointing out that the denigrating scenes in Innocence of Muslims are based on Islamic sources. Let us examine the examples presented in the opening paragraph:

  • In Wahi: The Supernatural Basis of Islam, the well-known scholar Koenraad Elst points out that Muhammad gets frightened after he has a sensory experience which Muhammad interprets as a sighting of the angel Gabriel. His wife Khadija comforts him. Elst cites a narrative of Ibn Ishaq according to which Khadija “made the apostle of God come inside her shift, and thereupon Gabriel departed.” Here, “coming inside her shift” is quite an explicit allusion to the sexual act between Muhammad and Khadija. Since Gabriel disappeared not wanting to be a voyeuristic spectator to this intimate scene, Khadija convinced Muhammad that he had indeed witnessed the angel of God and not the Satan because the Satan would have presumably tayed on to watch.[1] Muhammad’s fear goes away. Ibn Ishaq does not inform whether what Muhammad performed was oral sex but Bacile interprets it that way.
  • In The Life of Muhammad, the scholar Muhammad Husayn Haykal describes the Islamic raid on the Jewish settlement of Banu Quraizah, where Muhammad massacred the Jewish men and took their women and children into captive as slaves.[2] There are Quranic verses that justify a Muslim taking captives and using them as concubines (they are what the “right hand possesses”) and having sex with them (Quran 4:3, 33:50).
  • Sahih al-Bukhari (5:58:234, 5:58:236, 7:62:64, 7:62:65, 7:62:88) as well as Sahih Muslim (8:3309, 8:3310, 8:3311, 41:4915) inform that Aisha, Muhammad’s favorite wife, was either nine or ten years old when a elderly Muhammad (perhaps 58 years old) consummated his marriage to her.
  • In Muhammad, His Life Based on the Earliest Sources, the scholar Martin Lings points out that the beautiful 17-year-old Safiyyah b. Huyayy had been wed for merely a month when Muhammad massacred her husband and father in cold blood and took her as a captive and eventually as his wife.[3]
  • Zainab was the attractive wife of Muhammad’s adopted son, Zaid. One day Muhammad saw her undressing and got aroused. Zainab reported this to her husband who volunteered to Muhammad that he would divorce his wife so Muhammad could marry her. This resulted in a controversy in a society which considered it repulsive that one could marry his own daughter-in-law. Muhammad initially refused but then invoked the name of Allah and produced a verse (Quran 33:37) to abrogate adoption of children and then went on to marry Zainab.
  • Hafsa, one of Muhammad’s wives, is reported to have been unattractive and others had rejected her before Muhammad consented to marry her. Once she surprised him with her servant Maria (a euphemism for letting Muhammad sleep with Maria). Hafsa shared this information with the jealous Aisha and there appears to have been a controversy regarding this necessitating Muhammad to produce a revelation from Allah admonishing Aisha and Hafsa (Quran 66:4). Bacile portrays this as an act of Muhammad getting caught and beaten by his wives while on an amorous escapade.

So, while one could argue that Bacile had taken a few liberties in portraying Muhammad – such as calling Muhammad gay (based on the trailer – I do not know how Muhammad is portrayed throughout the yet to be released movie), much of the offending (to Muslims) portrayal is undoubtedly based on early Islamic accounts.

Organized riots

According to Robert Spencer’s Jihad Watch, Innocence of Muslims has been on the YouTube since 2011. So, what prompts the riots now? If Spencer is correct then the riots in Libya are a repeat of what happened years ago when Salman Rushdie’s Satanic verses was released or when the Danish Cartoon controversy happened. In both cases, a small core of Muslim clerics and leaders systematically incited hatred across the world. Muslim mobs responded by rioting and demanding a ban on the offending material which they had not read. In The Rushdie Affair: The Novel, the Ayatollah, and the West, Daniel Pipes and Koenraad Elst point out how a small band of Muslim clerics organized a campaign that included international protests, calls for banning Satanic Verses: A Novel by Salman Rushdie, and culminated in an Iranian fatwa to murder Rushdie. Muslim clerics especially seem to fear the efficacy of fictions that attack Islam.

This pattern was repeated when Jyllands-Posten, an inconspicuous Danish newspaper, published a set of cartoons mocking Muhammad. Muslim clerics not only waged a systematic campaign reminiscent of the campaign against Rushdie but also added a few offending cartoons to incite hatred in faraway Islamic states that would have never had access to the newspaper in the first place.

These incidents tell us that the riots are neither spontaneous nor indulged in by those who are even familiar with the supposedly offending material but are an outcome of systematic campaigns waged by vested interest groups from within the Muslim community to incite hatred.

The Appeasement

In every one of these cases, the reaction of non-Muslims is one of appeasement of the rioting Muslims and conceding that the Muslim sensibilities should not have been offended. Governments ban Satanic Verses: A Novel, newspapers refuse to reprint the Danish cartoons, and everyone complies with the Islamic diktat of not making any iconographic representation of Muhammad. In addition, some intellectuals go out of the way to portray Islam as a religion of peace and denounce critics of Islam – the example of Karen Armstrong’s denunciation of Robert Spencer and her attempts to portray Islam as a peaceful religion being a case in point. There is a near universal consensus that Islam should not be denigrated. Ironically, nobody is bothered about those Quranic verses that denigrate the followers of other religions. Let us consider the following teachings of The Quran:

  • Those who follow their “rabbis and their monks and the Messiah son of Mary” are  denigrated as idolaters (Quran 9:31)
  • Every religious inspiration other than Quranic revelation is blasphemy (Quran 6:19)
  • Worshipping of saints is idolatry and must be disallowed – saints are powerless (Quran 18:102, 17:56-57)
  • Saints of other religions are characterized as slaves (Quran 7:194)

Aren’t these verses unmistakable Islamic efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of the Buddhists, Christians, Jews, and Hindus? Aren’t those Quranic verses (Quran 9:29) and Hadiths that mandate the kafirs to pay jizyah (poll tax) dehumanizing them? What we are seeing is a continuing pattern where Islam denigrates other religions and preaches hatred against the followers of other religions and Islamic societies actively suppress other religions but nobody can criticize Islam without the fear of violent reprisal. Muslims know their violent tactics are effective. They have seen Salman Rushdie, Ibn Warraq, Ali Dashti, Danish cartoonists, and now Bacile get intimidated or go into hiding. They know that they can get away with pulling down the Bamiyan Buddha, ethnic cleansing Hindus from Bangladesh or Kashmir, or firebombing Israeli school children. They always count on the self-restraint of non-Muslims and the latter’s tendency to treat Islam with kid gloves. Muslims perpetuate a behavior that has favored Islam.

Why are non-Muslims perpetuating the same behavior? Is it not in our best interests to be rational, recognize Islam for what it is, and use freedom of expression to attack Islam until the Muslims understand that violent reprisal is not an option? Take Bacile’s contention that Islam is a cancer. This is well supported by scientific researches. In Virus of the Mind – the New Science of the Meme, Richard Brodie demonstrates that certain religious beliefs spread like viruses. Why are we not actively inoculating ourselves against such viruses of the mind? Freedom of expression to ridicule dangerous beliefs in itself may not be a sufficient counter to the Islamic threat but there is some evidence that fictionalized attacks on Islam are partly effective in weakening such religions as Islam. Even if a Muslim is impervious to criticism of Islam, non-Muslims can become conversant with the dangers of Islam.

We all have a duty to send a powerful message to the Muslims:

We are under no obligation to tolerate such an intolerant religion as Islam. We will ridicule it. We will portray Muhammad using icons. You are free to neither watch those movies nor read those books that might offend your sensibilities. However you cannot protest violently or disruptively. If you do, we will not back off. We will publish more ridiculing Islam and Muhammad. Governments will go after those that instigate Muslims to riot. We will not yield to an unreasonable Islamic behavior.

There is only one reason why Innocence of Muslims could be banned. There are reports that the cast of the movie was not aware that the movie attacks Islam. It is alleged that Bacile misled the crew that the movie is about ancient Egypt and subsequently dubbed the anti-Islam dialog without the actors’ consent. If true, it is an unconscionable thing to do because the director has no right to jeopardize the safety of unsuspecting actors.

Kalavai Venkat is a Silicon Valley-based writer, an atheist, and a practicing orthodox Hindu.

[1] Elst, Koenraad: Wahi – The Supernatural Basis of Islam, p. 19.

[2] Haykal, Muhammad Husayn: The Life of Muhammad, p. 337.

[3] Lings, M.: Muhammad, His Life Based on the Earliest Sources, p. 268.