An ambassador, a movie and madness

Gamal Nkrumah , Wednesday 12 Sep 2012

After ousting Libya's secular dictator, the US must now deal with the troublesome consequences of its ongoing flirtation with militant Islamism

The killing, allegedly by suffocation, of United States Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens in the Cyrenaican port city of Benghazi in eastern Libya has prompted much talk about the possible implications of growing anti-American sentiment in the countries of the Arab Spring. Confusion concerning the ambassador's cause of death further aggravated matters.

Earlier, it was reported that Stevens and three staff members, including two marines, were gunned down as militant Islamists fired rockets at the ambassador and his staff.

The incident marked an important ideological shift in the powers-that-be in Libya. Washington obviously had no notion of the consequences, and the admonition of the late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi comes to mind. So Washington flirted with militant Islamists and did not heed the words of her erstwhile secularist collaborator, who was derided as a mindless dictator and condemned to die the death of a dog.

Does not Washington stand for democracy and freedom of expression? He had long warned of the consequences of dilly-dallying with dogmatic zealots. But Washington, alas, did not heed his words of wisdom. Does not Washington stand for democracy and freedom of expression? It is clear the incident marks a turning point in the militant Islamists' perception of their relationship with the West generally and Washington in particular.

The repercussions were not only limited to Libya. In Egypt, the timing of the release of a film seen as defamatory to the Islamic faith culminated in disaster: militant Islamist protesters stormed the US embassy on Tuesday, burned the Stars and Stripes and hoisted the black banner of Al-Qaeda, emblazoned with 'There is no God but God, Mohamed is the Prophet of God.'

Later on Wednesday afternoon, copies of the Bible were burned in front of the American embassy in an apparent act of defiance. There were reported protests in Tunisia, too.

The brouhaha created by the release in the Arabic language of a rather mediocre film about the life of the Prophet Mohamed by British scriptwriter Tom Holland, whose documentary films, some of them sensational and mostly historical accounts, have thrilled audiences worldwide.

Holland is the British novelist and historian who, besotted by ancient cultures and history, has adapted Herodotus, Homer, Thucydides and Virgil for the BBC. His novella, 'The Poison in the Blood,' won accolades, including the Hessell-Tiltman Prize, awarded for his non-fiction historical account of the last years of the Roman Republic. Closer to this part of the world he wrote the internationally acclaimed 'The Persian Way of War.'

A controversial and creative artist, Holland also produced 'Islam: The Untold Story.' It was this particular work that attracted the attention of intellectuals and artists of the large Egyptian émigré community in the United States. And, a bombshell was hatched.

The Innocence of Muslims was reportedly scripted by a California-based Tom Holland, not to be confused with the famous British writer Tom Holland presenter of Islam:The Untold Story originally scheduled to be aired on 28 August by Britain's Channel 4. The show was cancelled, however, due to pressure by critics, mainly influential British Muslims. The British Tom Holland, author of In The Shadow of the Sword: The Birth of Islam and the Rise of the Global Arab Empire, has denied being associated with The Innocence of Muslims.
There is no hard evidence either that Sam Bacile is who he claims to be as 15 Coptc Christian and Evangelical Syrians in North America use the name.  

Sam Bacile is an anti-Islam Israeli filmmaker based in California. "Islam is a cancer, period," proclaimed Bacile, a real estate developer who claims to be an Israeli Jew, and who directed and produced the two-hour film funded by Jewish donors, Bacile insisted, and not by Coptic-Christians. A Coptic-Christian émigré shorn of his Egyptian nationality marketed the film in America and translated the trailer into the Arabic language.

The film points to where the conservative right in America is heading. And what a blasted commencement of hostilities? The film was scheduled to be screened in the US to mark the 11th anniversary of the 11 September terrorist attack in New York and Washington.

The film and the protests raging across the Arab world are ominous signs of a growing gap between the West and the Muslim world in terms of cultural values. Little of this frenzy would be new to policymakers and filmmakers, and the authors of such anti-Muslim works do not pretend otherwise. More fanciful are some of the assertions about freedom of expression.

The West is still trying to court the militant Islamists, but Western governments are beginning to realise that the malaise lies deeper than any foreign policy can immediately address.

Militant Islamists and Western secularist governments are at ideological loggerheads. They are both worried about the future. The Islamists are especially concerned about the West’s cultural influence and the secularising impact of Western art.

The Muslim world has enough domestic challenges without needing to exaggerate the gulf in cultural values that separates predominantly Muslim countries from the West. The secularists in the Muslim world are also cynical about the newly established power of the Islamists.

Whichever party can crystalise the conservative Islamist views, now trendy in Muslim countries, will reap the benefits. And films such as the two-hour 'Islam: The Untold Story' that cost $5 million to produce only accentuate the cultural gap between secularists and Christian minorities in predominantly Muslim countries.

Bacile was conscious of the probable consequences of his film. "This is a political movie," Bacile boasted. "Islam is a cancer, period," he concluded. The last is his most telling line.

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