I’ve just got back from ten days in London, starting with a splendid event at Chatham House, where a group of young policy analysts, from across the MENA region, a dozen of them from Morocco, debated their policy proposals. They had been working on these for eight months, covering subjects like energy, education reform, youth, gender and regionalization, and the results were very impressive.
But throughout the two days of the conference my i-pad brought me constant BBC reports on riots in Tunis, murder in Benghazi and the violent reactions in half a dozen other cities to an abject little film-clip, a trailer for a film supposedly called The Innocence of Muslims, posted on You-tube. The two streams of conversation and news were strange counterpoints to each other.
I’m intrigued not just by the politics of this grubby episode but by its strange cultural ramifications. The whole thing started, after all, with a film. Well, actually, it isn’t quite a film: it is a clip, a trailer for a film that doesn’t really seem to exist beyond the 15-minutes or so that were posted to the web. There are ‘full’ versions on You-tube too, 74 minutes and 114 minutes long, but they contain no more footage than the trailer, which is simply repeated again and again, padded out with exploding IEDs in Iraq, marching soldiers and fuzzy film of terrorist executions. It is such unmitigated, utter, incoherent junk that even to be offended by it seems to give it too much credit.
The Innocence of Muslims has a porn-film maker as its director; and a producer with a pseudonym who may be a Copt, or an Israeli, or a Copt wanting to be taken for an Israeli. He may have been convicted of, or is perhaps on bail for, fraud. The film is performed (though this word over-dignifies the activity) by actors and actresses who claim not to have known what they were acting in (but may be lying), and whose outrageous and vulgar words were allegedly dubbed in the editing-room without their knowledge, by voices of whose owners we know nothing either. This too may be a lie.
In other words it is not at all clear in quite what sense this almost-film, this confected trailer for a nothing, exists: it might be the starting point for a story by Orhan Pamuk or Umberto Eco. It is an extraordinarily post-modern artifact.
It was designed, obviously, to have a destructive impact, but to begin with, it didn’t actually have much impact at all: in fact its makers must have been deeply disappointed by the almost total lack of reaction from Muslims to the trailer’s first few weeks on You-tube, where it was ignored. So frustrated were they, in fact, that they dubbed it into Arabic, in order that it annoy Muslims even more – and posted the Arabic version just before the anniversary of 9/11. So it was that after a great deal of puffing and pushing, they got their bizarre show on the road, and at last brought the film to the attention of their opposite numbers, for whom it was designed.
This slow start is a common pattern: Rushdie’s Satanic Verses was reportedly reviewed equably enough in the Tehran newspapers before being taken up as a cause for outrage; and the Danish cartoons bloomed unseen for several months before being adopted as a tool by a cleric bent on promoting outrage and himself in equal measure. Although the web makes it easier to flash provocation round the world, it is actually still quite difficult to get real outrage started; and contrary to the assumption of many western observers, there weren’t huge numbers of volatile, bloodthirsty Muslims waiting to take offence. One estimate says that somewhere between 0.001% and 0.007% of the world’s Muslims took part in demonstrations, the vast majority entirely peacefully.
None of this is to suggest that the offence itself is unreal: it is clearly very genuine, and in some cases so passionate that a few people have died and more have been injured, protesting against it. Others have killed. But what was the traction of this non-film on their imaginations? It’s worth remembering that the vast majority of rioters in Islamabad and demonstrators in Sri Lanka, Indonesia and elsewhere outside the Arabic-speaking world couldn’t understand a word of the film-clip, even after it had been subtitled in fus7a and dubbed into Egyptian Arabic (abominably – “like a robot talking,” as one Moroccan friend describes it to me). Their reactions were therefore fuelled entirely by the account of someone else, who may well not have understood it either. Even in the Arab World we may suppose that the vast majority of outrage was vicarious, passionately felt by people who hadn’t seen the film, and took on trust what they were told it said. In Egypt, where the film was broadcast by a salafi TV station, many Egyptians were deliberately led to believe that it is a new Hollywood blockbuster on general release.
By now we are several worlds away from tangible reality. This phantasmagorical film, with only a tenuous existence of its own in the first place, has earned itself another equally phantasmagorical existence in the descriptions of it passed between people who haven’t seen it and in many cases couldn’t have understood it even if they had. Its broadcast by the Coptophobic al-Nas TV station in Egypt is the precise moral equivalent of making it in the first place.
By now it’s clear that we aren’t dealing with a single objective reality, but with a winged idea, a meme mutating rapidly as it passes from mouth to mouth and from mind to mind. It may have started life as a malignant little act of cultural terrorism put together by incompetent fools in California; but it is equally the creation of those who have described it, glossed it, added to it and exaggerated it – often unintentionally – because its memetic existence has long since left behind the actual stream of bits that made up the video. In fact the film itself has vanished into its own description, a self-transforming wiki. Infinitely more people have heard about it than have seen it, and their word-of-mouth is both more substantial and more important than the film. This malignant supply-chain is cross-cultural, leading seamlessly from a rented-by-the-hour editing suite in California via TV studios like that in Cairo, to a rioting mob in Karachi, a torched school in Tunis and smashed embassies in several cities.
In an excellent article in OpenDemocracy Imad Mansour questions the role of intellectual leadership, and the abject predictability with which some sections of Arab society rise to the bait: it may indeed be a cleverly-crafted conspiracy to insult and offend and provoke. But in the region, what is more important … is asking and discussing the far more relevant and local question of where the ‘agency’ of the ‘reacting street’ is. How can we accept statements that claim that the filmmakers obviously ‘knew’ what would happen? Does this not cast Arab societies as totally predictable, stagnant and lacking in creativity, self-determination and restraint – all stereotypes that the Arab spring was supposed to have successfully and dramatically challenged? What does it say about Arab societies if, even after a revolutionary moment, others are able to ‘know’ it through and through, playing on its anxieties like some puppet-master? It’s only necessary to add that the puppet-masters are two, one at each end of the intercultural trade route. Those who made the film and those who use it for violent, sectarian purposes are as guilty as each other of demeaning Muslims and Muslim societies. They do each others’ work: Once the fire is ablaze, as Vivienne Matthies-Boon puts it in the same issue of OpenDemocracy, it is used to prove the point the authors set out to make in the first place, namely that all Muslims are violent and irrational.
Of course they’re not, and this needs to be demonstrated with dignity and self-control. The truly depressing thing is that most Muslims during this dreadful fortnight have demonstrated exactly this dignity and self-control, and many have been the clear statements of revulsion and proportionate good sense about the whole sordid affair.
But that’s not what gets remembered. We’ve all been herded into the same old trap again.