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Incitement to violence via YouTube

21 September 2012

Hatred stirred: the film story in The Guardian on Tuesday

Hatred stirred: the film story in The Guardian on Tuesday

FIRST, a story that wasn't. The likely end of the women-bishops crisis doesn't seem to have been reported anywhere in the mainstream press. I'm not sure whether this is because only rows are news, or whether "Church of England being sensible and thoughtful" is not news, even if it does seem out of character.

Then, a story that was everywhere: the Innocence of Muslims video and its consequences. It's difficult to see this as anything but a deliberate and fairly successful attempt to stir up trouble in the Middle East.

The man behind it, reportedly a Coptic Christian with convictions for fraud and arrests for running a meth lab in California, first represented himself to The Wall Street Journal as an "Israeli Jew" whose film had been backed by 100 Jewish donors.

The film itself had been made by deception: the actors (who seem to have been ignorant and incurious to a degree unremarkable in California) supposed either that they were making a film about the oppression of Christians in the modern Middle East, or one about a religious figure known in the script as "George". It appears that the dialogue was redubbed in post-production to make it clear that "George" was in fact Muhammad.

A crude trailer uploaded to YouTube, which is all that the world has seen, would probably have languished in utter obscurity like almost everything else there. But someone helpfully took a copy in Cairo and dubbed it into Arabic. From then on, the story ran in predestinate grooves, like a tram.

It appears that the attack on the United States' consulate in Benghazi was, in fact, nothing to do with the video; but that made little difference to the US media, who were delighted to find more proofs that Muslims hate them, and hate freedom of expression. The Newsweek cover showing very angry Arabs, along with an essay on "Muslim Rage" by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, was the logical culmination. Hatred satisfactorily stirred all round.

One point, of course, is that there is a real basis for the fear and anger on both sides. Christians are horribly persecuted in much of the Middle East, simply for being Christians. Muslims remain unaccountably ungrateful for the liberation of Iraq, and even the occupation of Palestine. Muhammad did marry a nine-year-old girl.

But then, half-truths are much more effective at upsetting and disturbing people than pure lies; possibly even more effective than whole truths, though those are so seldom told that the sample is too small to judge.

THE most articulate and forceful defence of First Amendment absolutism was put by Nick Cohen, in The Observer: the film was "an amateur and adolescent piece of religious propaganda that depicts Muhammad as a violent and lascivious fool. Copts probably made it. As there is no great difference between Christian and Islamist extremists, why not intervene in this clash of fundamentalisms and stop one sect inciting another sect to violence?"

But he never actually answered this question. On Tom Holland, who made the Channel 4 film Islam: The untold story, broadcast on 28 August, he was absolutely right and very quotable. His film "was everything that the Muhammad trailer was not. Tom Holland presented a thoughtful and balanced film on the arguments among historians about whether the armies that exploded out of Arabia to conquer the Persian empire and much of the Byzantine empire were Muslim, or whether Islam came later.

"His documentary was public-service television at its most scrupulous. I speak from experience when I say that he has no hatred of religion. The last time I met him was at a debate where he argued for and I argued against a motion that religion was a force for good in the world.

"Nevertheless, Holland and Channel 4 had the integrity to break a taboo that more frightened broadcasters are too cowardly to challenge," Cohen continues. "They aired doubts about Islam's founding myths, and the predictable fulminations followed. . . Denunciations are all over the web, and could be picked up in Iran or Egypt, or, indeed, Bradford or Birmingham and used as an excuse to attack British interests."

Surely it matters that there were, in fact, few if any such protests in Bradford or Birmingham? In any case, the fact that many things should not be censored by no means proves that nothing should ever be.

In the end, Cohen retreated into his only unassailable position: fine rhetoric and wishful thinking: "Reactionaries are not hard to beat in open debate. If you can't beat them without calling for the cops or reaching for a gun, you should get out of the debating business and make way for someone who can."

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