Beyond Insulting the Prophet: Defying Hypocrisies East and West
Rulers of Iran and Syria “exaggerate the significance” of the film to divert attention from their own problems.
In a rare public appearance, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has delivered a fiery speech protesting the film that has mocked Islam and Prophet Muhammad. He has called for a weeklong protest against the film. This is a diversionary tactic, directly from the apothecary box of the Islamic republic, intended to divert attention from the criminal atrocities of the ruling regime in Syria, and by extension Iran, the principal sponsors of Hassan Nasrallah.
The world has been distracted by such diversionary tactics once in 1979. It will not be fooled again in 2012.
Hassan Nasrallah is as much invested in diverting attention from the unfolding Arab Spring – particularly in Syria – as Netanyahu is, for on the urgency of this diversion they are identical, Nasrallah to keep himself relevant in a vastly changed political climate, Netanyahu to steal more of Palestine.
The Arab Spring has put them both on the spot as opposing open-ended democratic uprisings that is changing the political contour of the region away from clichés-ridden “resistance” to Israel that in effect sustains its colonial designs to gobble up the entirety of Palestine by making even the two-state solution obsolete, as we now hear the American Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney – bought and paid for by the Israeli benefactor – Sheldon Adelson – articulate it.
The fact that the Free Syrian Army has been discredited for its own violent records, and the fact that Saudi Arabia and its Persian Gulf client states and by extension the United States are trying to abuse the situation in Syria to their own advantage do not mean that Bashar al-Assad and his tyrannical rule are God’s gift to the Syrian people. Bashar al-Assad is in trouble, even more than Ali Khamenei was in trouble two years ago.
In both cases, Nasrallah has had to keep his alliances with the two tyrannies intact – to keep himself afloat. He is making a historic mistake, for which generations of Lebanese Shias will pay. He must decouple himself from both Syria and Iran – as Hamas is doing -and realign Hezbollah with the democratic aspirations of Arabs and Muslims from Africa to Asia. That would be the true test of his statesmanship.
Instead of doing that, he has reached for the oldest and most predictable cliché extant -diversion. Nasrallah’s diversionary tactic must be exposed and eyes must remain on the ball – the ball of the transnational democratic uprising that has toppled four dictators and pushed aside the politics of despair that Hasan Nasrallah and his Syrian and Iranian sponsors, as well as Israel and Saudi Arabia, each for its own reasons, wish to keep intact.
To keep our eyes on the ball, we must expose the two complementary sets of hypocrisies that Nasrallah’s move seeks to cover up – and the Arab Spring has already overcome.
Protesting too much
In a public letter to the Secretary General of the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation (OIC), Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami has condemned the anti-Islamic film the “Innocence of Muslims” and demanded (original letter in Persian) that OIC see to it that the United States confront and deal with such hateful acts.
In a similar statement (original statement in Persian), Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic, has equally condemned this film and declared that had previous perpetrators of such insults like Salman Rushdie were not protected by “Western governments” this supreme insult would not have happened.
As an icon of the Reformist Movement in Iran, former President Khatami does not usually see eye-to-eye with the Supreme Leader. But on this particular occasion they seem to have almost identical positions.
On the surface these are two Muslims leaders rightfully angered by an anti-Islamic film. But at a closer look questions arise.
The entire edifice of the Islamic Republic – both its ruling regime and its Reformist opposition led by Mohammad Khatami – is standing on the mass grave of the Khavaran Cemetery, on the mass execution of political prisoners particularly in the 1980s, on the repeated club-wielding vigilante-led university purges and cultural revolutions, on the constitutionally undemocratic rule of the clerical class, on the dictatorial doctrine of Velayat-e Faqih, on mandatory veiling of women and scores of other denials of civil liberties – all of which are made in part possible by the two smoke screens of the American Hostage crisis (1979-1980) and the Salman Rushdie affair (1988-1989) -namely precisely the current circumstances in a previous gestation that Khomeini and Khatami’s cadre of Islamists used and abused to secure an “Islamic Republic” for themselves.
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Both Khamenei and Khatami are what they are – leaders of that Islamic Republic (either in power or wishing to be in power) – precisely because they and their cohorts used the American Hostage crisis and the Salman Rushdie affair (legitimate angers put at the service of illegitimate power grabbing) to establish an Islamic Republic against a multifaceted and polyvocal revolution – to destroy any voice of dissent and limit the field of politics to the sort of political Islamism which they – despite all their differences -approve and of which they are the beneficiaries, at the heavy cost to the worldly cosmopolitanism of Iranian political culture they have come together to deny and dismiss.
Before Khatami or Khamenei denounce this ghastly film, or even as they do so, they ought to do their own soul searching and answer the key question of who did what in those horrid years and beyond. President Khatami, the great advocate of the “dialogue of civilisation”, as he calls it, in particular must first begin a dialogue at home – with the survivors of this grisly history of the Islamic republic.
That Khatami is no longer in a position to do any such thing, that he himself is now persona non grata in the Islamic republic, that once every four years he is brought out of the closet, polished and given a podium to warm up the otherwise illegitimate parliamentary and presidential elections, does not exonerate him or any other member of the opposition – including the leader of the Green Movement Mir Hossein Mousavi – from historical responsibility.
In the course of the Green Movement, Mir Hossein Mousavi at least in part (never to the full extent) revived the revolutionary aspirations that he and other Islamists were instrumental in suppressing early in the course of the violently Islamised revolution.
Over the last three years, Mir Hossein Mousavi has rightly, legitimately and consistently emerged as a vastly popular leader of a dormant civil rights movement – by virtue of his courage, steadfastness and loyalty to the masses of millions of people who have trusted and voted for him. But in a free and democratic future in Iran, even Mousavi with his vast current popularity among the generously forgiving Iranians must answer those thorny questions.
Both Khatami and Khamenei in their statements blame the horrid film on “Zionists”. What Zionists exactly? When they wrote their respective statements, within 24 hours of investigative journalism it was a public knowledge that the man behind this clip was an Egyptian Christian Copt from California who was in fact an Islamophobic anti-Semite who could not help attributing his own film to “unnamed Jewish millionaires” to deal with “the cancer of Islam”.
Forget about Khamenei, who if you take away the phrase “Zionist enemy” from his vocabulary, will not be able to utter a single sentence anymore. But what about the champion of a dialogue of civilisation? Could he or his staff not have a simple dialogue with the internet with a half decent search engine to know that Zionists had nothing to do with this particular atrocity?
Zionists have done lots of other atrocities and pro-Israelis have lavishly partaken in Islamophobia, as Adam Shatz demonstrated in his essay back in 2008 during the US presidential election. But this particular inanity had nothing to do with Zionists – and if we want the legitimate criticism of Zionism to remain legitimate, we cannot have any part of these pathological knee-jerk reactions.
In his letter to Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, Khatami is caught red handed that he is no different from Khamenei when it comes to irresponsible statements blaming Zionists for just about everything – this amounts to a subconsciously whitewashing of the fact that his entire Reformist movement is predicated on never questioning the circumstances in which an illegitimate Islamic republic came to be.
“Yes, no one can make fun of Prophet Muhammad in Iran, but nor can he or she question the medieval tyranny of a band of Shia clerics and their doctrine of Velayat-e Faqih, without ending up in the notorious Evin Prison.”
In his letter, Khatami says that the US must do something about this horrid film. What exactly is to be done? Democracy is full of paradoxes. To paraphrase a popular saying these days and say it in a more polite way, if you ban the word “hell” people can no longer say “the hell with this government” either.
The same freedom of expression that enables that racist Islamophobe to make that ghastly film enables millions of others to criticise the criminal atrocities of the ruling class in the US, including to demand that former President Bush be tried for war crimes. Can any Iranian dissident do anything remotely like that? Yes, no one can make fun of Prophet Muhammad in Iran, but nor can he or she question the medieval tyranny of a band of Shia clerics and their doctrine of Velayat-e Faqih, without ending up in the notorious Evin Prison.
So what exactly does Mr Dialogue of Civilisation have in mind when he says that the maker of this indecency be dealt with? If he and his cohorts were more tolerant of those courageous men and women who were brutally executed with a single stroke of pen by Ayatollah Khomeini simply because they had a dream of a far superior and healthier future for their homeland than the unending nightmare that Khatami and other Shia clerics and their Praetorian Guards (The Pasdaran) have delivered to 75 million Iranians then they might have been more tolerant of a thug in California.
Where were you and what was your position Mr Khatami when those precious jewels of the nation were being slaughtered in prison and buried in mass graves in Khavaran, sir? You don’t think just because Iranians of this generation are forgiving and vote for you as opposed to the others they have forgotten their history, sir – do you?
So instead of writing a letter to Organisation of Islamic Co-operation demanding that something to be done about this imbecilic video, or in addition to that request, how about if you ask OIC to preside over a committee of truth and reconciliation of those mass executions, sir? What do you say? I suggest the Khavaran Cemetery as the site of this meeting.
That the Islamic republic has a criminal record of systematically abusing, torturing, forcing into exile and outright murdering its dissidents does not mean that dissidents have a splendidly rosy life here at the heart of the American empire.
No: pro-Israeli lobbies in conjunction with neo-conservatives scandalise them, create website against them, have some of their students spy on them, write books and produce “documentaries” against them, show it to their employers and demand their dismissal, as New York tabloids picture them like two-headed monsters who devour their own children – thus trying to force them out of our jobs, or else into silence.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has spoken very eloquently of her own distaste for this spoof against Prophet Muhammad but has added that alas there is nothing she can do for in the US we have freedom of expression. Indeed we do – occasionally.
Consider the case of Tarek Mehanna. According to Christian Science Monitor:
“On April 12, the United States government successfully convicted another young Muslim male, who believed he had the right to express his deep disdain for American foreign policy in the Middle East and Asia. Tarek Mehanna, an American-born Bostonian, took his First Amendment rights quite seriously when he vocally condemned his government for killing thousands of Muslims abroad. As a result, he was convicted of conspiring to help al-Qaeda.”
So what you say Madame Secretary – how about we hand this Nakoula Basseley Nakoula (“Sam Bacile”) character to the same judge who tried Tarek Mehanna – for I need not remind you, Ma’am, this thug has threated American national security, as you call it, infinitely more than Tarek Mehanna could possibly have.
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What about Bradley Manning, Madame Secretary? Is he entitled to his freedom of speech, perhaps? As he is being tried for treason, there are millions of Americans who consider him the true conscience of the nation?
Isn’t a functioning democracy contingent on freedom of gathering and disseminating information about two successive wars that have cost unimaginable human suffering, Ma’am? So perhaps Bradley Manning could be extended his constitutional rights the way this thug in California is protected by the same constitution? What you say?
I hear you say “but we have due process of law in this country”. Yes indeed Ma’am, we do – every once in a while.
Consider the National Defence Authorisation Act (NDAA) that President Obama has signed into law and that contains provisions allowing for the indefinite incarceration of American citizens on suspicion of being terrorists.
According to a recent piece by Trevor Timm for Al Jazeera, a federal judge has “recently blocked the implementation of that law, saying it violated both the free speech and due process clauses of the Constitution. The Obama administration has predictably appealed”.
Now what? Is “free speech” an American value guaranteed by the Constitution, or is it a crime punishable by law – written into the law by a constitutional lawyer now the US president? And what exactly happened to that “due process” and to habeas corpus?
As for the holier-than-thouEuropeans championing the cause of freedom of expression, how come when it comes to the naked pictures of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge there is royal outrage at the insolence of showing those pictures on a French Magazine, and if an Irish newspaper decides to publish them, BBC raises its front-page eyebrow?
For sure the Duke and Duchess are entitled to their privacy and no paparazzi should intervene in that privacy – but why is it when it comes to the same press not publishing (or even objecting to the publication of) these pictures they have no qualms about the freedom of expression but the selfsame freedom of expression suddenly becomes a “western value” when it comes to demeaning a prophet sacrosanct to the dignity of millions of people?
I hear my European interlocutors saying well the Duke and Duchess have not climbed any embassy wall or burned any flag or murdered any ambassador – true but they have just unleashed their army of clean-shaven three-piece suit lawyers to punish the perpetrators in legal terms equivalents to poor people’s outrage posing in front of a Newsweek camera. The sentiment is identical but the means of retribution vary depending to what is available to people.
“President Obama cannot be held responsible for what Sam Bacile does in California – but doesn’t the proverbial buck stop with him when it comes to being the Commander-in-Chief of the US military?”
Neither Newsweek calling up Ayaan Hirsi Ali to write yet another silly Islamophobic piece for them, nor Anders Breivik’s mass murder in Norway, nor a lonesome pastor in Florida warming up to a copy of the Quran, nor indeed Sam Bacile’s imbecility is an isolated event in the US and Europe. They are integral to a pattern.
Yes, we cannot hold the US government responsible for what anyone of these folks has done – but what about when the US army is integral to the selfsame desecration of what Muslims hold sacrosanct? What about the systematic abuse of the Quran to torture Muslim prisoners – not by a racist thug in California or loony tune in Florida, but by members of the US army, all the way from Afghanistan to Iraq to Guantanamo Bay torture chambers?
According to The Washington Post in June 2005:
“The US military released new details yesterday about five confirmed cases of US personnel mishandling the Quran at the prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, acknowledging that soldiers and interrogators kicked the Muslim holy book, got copies wet, stood on a Quran during an interrogation and inadvertently sprayed urine on another copy.”
On another case, reported by The Newsweek, part of which was subsequently retracted, United States personnel at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp had “deliberately damaged a copy of the book by flushing it in a toilet in order to torment the prison’s Muslim captives had been confirmed by government sources”.
President Obama cannot be held responsible for what Sam Bacile does in California – but doesn’t the proverbial buck stop with him when it comes to being the Commander-in-Chief of the US military?
What about the US military course that taught American officers “Islam is the enemy” and suggested “that Mecca and Medina may have to be obliterated”? That was not a lunatic fraud in California making those comments. That was “Lieutenant Colonel Matthew Dooley … in a presentation last July for the course at Joint Forces Staff College in Norfolk, Virginia. The college, for professional military members, teaches mid-level officers and government civilians on subjects related to planning and executing war”.
Sam Bacile is integral to a pattern, an Islamophobic streak of racism, that runs deep into American culture – of which neither President Obama nor any other elected official can easily be exonerated. President Obama to this day is “accused” of being a Muslim. Never ever could he bring himself to day, “I am not a Muslim, but there is nothing wrong with being a Muslim”. Quite to the contrary when he was trying to woo pro-Israeli votes in Florida in 2008, he concealed the obvious Arabic etymology of his name, and offered a Hebrew etymology for Barack!
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The only legitimate reaction to a bad film is a bad review. That’s it – on to the next atrocity. But since the politics of despair wants to pull the rug from under the feet of Arab revolutions, too much protestations become utterly hypocritical on both sides of the divide. Muslim leaders denounce Islam bashing and forget about their own atrocities, as American officials defend freedom of speech but forget about denying it to those who question their warmongering.
People at large – Muslims and Americans alike – need to chart a third way. They are charting a third way.
It is sad to see an ageing warrior like Hassan Nasrallah being left behind by the force of history and resorting to a predicable cliché like asking for no less than one whole week of protest by his supporters ostensibly to vent anger against a pathetic racists video but in effect to distract attention from the criminal atrocities of his allies in Syria and Iran, or perhaps to regain the popularity he once had before endorsing Assad and before him Khamenei. But such is the force of destiny and the unfolding drama of the Arab Spring.
Nasrallah’s loss is not Israel’s gain. Israel stands to lose far more than Nasrallah from the Arab revolutions – and that is precisely the reason it is trying to pick a fight with Iran. The real existential threat to the Jewish settler colony is the democratic tsunami that is engulfing it. Nasrallah still has enough political cache from his spectacular victory over Israel in 2006 to change course and trust the democratic will of multiple nations and abandon his two security blankets of Syria and Iran.
The Arab and Muslim revolts we code-name Arab Spring is a reaction precisely to the thicket of these confounding hypocrisies East and West. People have defied both sides of these false divides. The rulers of Iran and Syria, now joined by the leader of Hezbollah, love to exaggerate the significance of this obnoxious film in order to divert attention from their own respective problems.
President Obama is not exactly the picture of resolution and vision or goodwill as to how to deal with these sorts of crisis either. Israel is putting pressure on him in this election year to lead a military strike against Iran.
Netanyahu, Assad, Khamenei and Hassan Nasrallah are identical in their resolve to distract attention from the unfolding Arab revolts and push the situation back to status quo ante.
But this smoke screen is clearing and the fact that a boorish banality like this video is being trumpeted by all who are on the losing side of the Arab revolutions is a clear indication that they have run out of stratagems to distract people from the real course of history that has left them all behind. Through the smoke appears the clear horizon ahead of the Arab Spring.
Hamid Dabashi is the Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York. His most recent book is The Arab Spring: The End of Postcolonialism (Zed 2012).