What do Christian films and porno movies have in common? Bad acting, lousy production values, and you always know how it will end. This is a joke, told by many of my filmmaking friends in Hollywood that rings remarkably true in The Innocence of Muslims. The script, the sets, the lighting, the hair, the makeup, the clothes are all horribly cheesy. Noticeably awful sound is always the mark of the amateur. A true editor would have cut out the film altogether, leaving no trace of this trash. How can so much incompetence be packed into one nearly incomprehensible story? And yet, this bungled fourteen-minute trailer is probably the most important film of the year (with apologies to Paul Thomas Anderson, director of The Master). Sometimes the worst of media can overwhelm the most beautiful, resonant, and worthwhile.
How should followers of Jesus respond to this travesty? Let us begin with embarrassment and shame. How can something so vile and offensive have been made by people claiming to serve the Son of God? How can Jesus, the embodiment of love be dragged into the muck and mire that is The Innocent of Muslims? This is doing unto others without any form of respect and responsibility. I understand that Christians in Egypt may feel endangered by recent political upheavals. Coptic Christians are far too familiar with religious persecution. And the ascent of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt heightens their fear. But to engage in such blatant blasphemy directed towards Muhammad can only be identified as hate speech. And hate speech is never free—it is always costly.
How many ways have the ersatz producers managed to offend? Of course, their ‘film’ includes scenes of sabre wielding Muslims slaughtering an innocent Christian. That is easy and familiar. But to label the prophet as illegitimate, to show him pigging out on pork, to place his face between a woman’s legs, to call the Koran a false amalgamation of Jewish scriptures and the New Testament, to imply that the messenger slept with married women, that he encouraged his followers to sexually abuse children, etc. etc. etc. etc. ad infinitum (or at least for fourteen painful and ridiculous minutes) is reprehensible. Our embarrassment and shame should be followed by outrage.
I have been slow to respond. They are so many layers and players to unravel. I do not want to add an ounce of fuel to the fire. The cultural gulf between western freedom of expression and Islamic propriety is so massive. America is a post-blasphemous culture (with all the subsequent blind spots that creates). I also don’t want to drive more people to YouTube in search of this offense. It has gone from an appropriately obscure trailer to a global audience of over 10 millions and counting. But I did watch each painful minute because Christians must at least own a certain complicity in this kind of Muslim-baiting. Sure, the video can be turned into all kinds of politically motivated fodder. No, people shouldn’t have rioted over such an absurd project. A bridge building U.S. ambassador in Libya should never have perished because the disingenuous “filmmakers” tried to start a firestorm. A convicted fraud Nakoula Basseley Nakoula aka Sam Becile has perpetrated a massive identity theft—turning a religion rooted in grace and love into a weapon of hate. So shame and outrage may be followed by sorrow and grief. My heart also breaks for actors who were duped and dubbed by the filmmakers. We should all sue Nakoula.
Thank God for Coptic Orthodox leaders like His Grace Bishop Serapion of Los Angeles who have spoken out against the film: “Copts across the Diaspora never participated in any humiliation or violence against those who often persecute Christians. It is not the Christian way to respond to hatred with hate. Christianity prohibits a Christian from such acts,” said Serapion. “If burning the Holy Bible is wrong, then burning any book revered or respected by others is equally wrong. Holistically blaming the Copts for the production of this movie is equivalent to holistically blaming Muslims for the actions of a few fanatics. Even though Christians often face persecution, injustice and calls for open attacks over the airwaves, we reject violence in all its forms.” The calls for peace emanating from my Muslim colleagues on Patheos have also been inspiring. They acknowledge how much work and education remains to be done throughout the Muslim world.
I am grateful for companies like Ethnographic Media who produce peacemaking docs like Little Town of Bethlehem. Scholars like Miroslav Volf are writing bold and innovative books that bring people together despite different religious practices. I’ve invested three years in the Songs for Peace Project, working with Muslims and Christians in Lebanon and Indonesia, who share common values and remarkable music. I have been blessed by these friendships forged with Muslims from across the globe. And yet, all of these wise, measured, and encouraging efforts can be undone by fourteen lamentable minutes.
We have prayed for the violence to stop. We wait for the anger to subside. We yearn for a world in which art blesses rather than blasphemes. We will not eliminate hate this side of paradise. But may creativity and healing arise out of sorrow and stupidity.