First of all, Christopher Stevens sounds like a decent guy, a real mensch. May his loved ones, those of everyone killed at the US embassy in Benghazi and everyone who died in protests this weekend be comforted.
Second of all, this story is so full of weird wrinkles, it will be a while before we understand it all. A meth dealer and probable snitch decides suddenly that he is going to get his life on a different track—and, hey, how hard could it be to make a movie? A Christian supremacist who wants to alter the religious protection in our Constitution is brought in as a consultant. The bottom feeder dupes hungry actors into creating such a craptastic mélange of dreadful—really it is extraordinary that the direction and editing and acting are on the level of bad 1970s TV and that the script is a compendium of every smutty taunt that your average middle-schooler might bring into a bathroom slapfest and that all that stupid is directed at the founder of one of the world’s great faiths. One would expect that if this steaming pile went anywhere, it might achieve a small cultish buzz for its sheer volume of stunning suck.
But this deservedly inconsequential “film” was dubbed into Arabic and people throughout the Middle East responded in fury. Peaceful demonstrations against the film were pushed to the side by people who wanted to attack embassies. The strikingly naïve idea that the US government even knew about and should have used force to prevent this pathetic, evil and legal exercise of free speech is now promulgated as a talking point. All this over a movie? No, it was as much catalyst as cause.
At least two things seem to be clear: there was a well of anger and grievance with the USA among sectors within Muslim and Arab countries that is deep enough to be tapped by this clumsy provocation; and there is also a complex diversity of thought which, thanks to the Arab Spring is bursting into the public square. Witness the demonstrations in Libya against the embassy killings. Witness the differences between those who wanted to demonstrate peacefully against the stupid film and those who responded with violence. Witness the differences, even among the violent, between armed deliberation and the spontaneous rage. The entire “Arab and Muslim world” does not hate us and is in a state of generative flux. Is it possible, however, that our decades of military intervention and support for those brutal strongmen deposed in the Arab Spring is coming back to haunt?
Third, the intricacies of this story will play out for a long time, and an attitude of curious skepticism—and grief for the departed---might serve us well now. What we in the US, and in the Jewish community in particular can do, is resist any rhetoric or pressure that nudges us toward conflicts of choice—or toward election-year distractions.
The Innocence of Muslims is the latest version of what has become an election season ritual—the introduction of anti-Muslim propaganda into the mix. During the 2008 presidential election campaign, millions of unsolicited DVDs of the film Obsession were sent to homes in swing states. The film portrayed the entirety of Muslim believers as a seething mass of hate just waiting to get their hands on us. (Full disclosure: after its release, I helped to prepare an extended critique of the film, which you can read here.) The film addressed itself to likely voters, framing the election, not as a choice between two starkly different approaches to economic issues, but as a choice between potential commanders in chief during a state of global war. In 2010, Newt Gingrich produced a film called America at Risk that carried the same message and was overtly designed as an intervention in the congressional elections. These films are much more expensive and much more professionally made than The Innocence of Muslims, but they seem to draw from some of the same inspiration.
Both of those efforts, along with “The Third Jihad,” produced by the same Clarion Fund that gave us Obsession, are characterized by a bludgeoning repetition of a few common tropes: collages in which footage of ordinary Muslims at prayer and on the street are juxtaposed with horrific images of the 9/11 attacks and clips of purported religious leaders inveighing against the US. Simply being Muslim is conflated with fervent disagreement with US foreign policy is conflated with mass murder. We are warned in those films that the enemy walks among us—they are our compatriots and neighbors who worship in the Mosque down the street and who accessorize differently from the way that we do. (Not so differently on the male side—it takes an insider to tell the difference between a takiyah and a yarmulke.) Unless of course they don’t visibly do any of those things—then they are especially perfidious because they look just like us! Bad for keeping their culture, bad for assimilating—why, yes, the parallels with anti-Jewish propaganda are striking, aren’t they?
We don’t yet know what is going on overseas, but over here we appear to be confronted once again by two opposing narratives of what this election is about. Is it about economic justice or about an epic global conflict? Are we obliged to go to war with everyone who wants to be at war with us or are there some battles we get to decline? How do we engage with the rest of the world in ways that reduce conflict and don't promote it? Those are questions for all Americans. As Jews in the month of Elul, we face particular questions of our own. Are we doing everything possible to rebuke religious bigotry and stand up for all religious minorities, not just ourselves? We Americans have all seen the results of this bigotry in the murders of Sikhs at prayer and the burning of a mosque. We Jews know the worst of what can happen when categorical hatreds are inflamed, especially in hard times. Time to speak up.