The Innocence of Filmmaking
I’ve been kicking this post around in my head for a couple days now, and I thought I’d post it here for y’all to see. A quick preamble:
I’m going to be referencing an article by Stephen Cornell titled “The Variable Ties that Bind: Content and Circumstance in Ethnic Boundaries” in my discussion of Islam, ethnicity, and identity. I don’t know if it’s available for free on the internet, but if you want a pdf just let me know. The Professor that assigned that reading for me, Dr. Hakan Yavuz, will also be quoted at least once in this post… if you want me to recommend a piece of his send me an email. Also, while I am absurdly liberal, this piece will be relatively objective. When I mention “U.S. foreign policy” I am referring to decades of activity, while at the same time alluding to a longer history of Imperialism and oppression carried out by “the West” (Europe and America). I might get more specific than that, but some of you have work in the morning.
All right! Here we go.
I’m about halfway through Reza Aslan’s “No god but God.” It is incredible, and absolutely essential for anyone who has any interest in world affairs or religion. It is concise, eminently readable, and just plain great. Aslan summarizes Islamic tradition while addressing criticism, pointing out flaws, and even discussing academic treatment of Islam by the West all while managing to keep a pretty brisk pace. Thanks to Spencer for bringing it to my attention years ago (though I ignored him until last week). Anyway, Aslan mentions, at some point, the criticism that Muhammad is a pedophile who married a 9-year old girl. Reza dismisses the notion quickly and decisively. Muhammad was betrothed to a young girl, a common event in ancient times, and didn’t consummate the marriage until she reached puberty. He stayed monogamous for 25 years with his first wife, and only began practicing polygamy in order to strengthen ties within his village and create alliances with rival clans. If somebody tells you that Muhammad is a pedophile they are either (a) stupid (b) simply incorrect or (c) maliciously trying to denigrate a religion they do not care for. The movie about Muhammad (“The Innocence of Muslims”) makes this claim, and the creators of the movie manage to be both stupid and malicious at the same time.
Let’s be frank. I do not blame Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, the Coptic Christian who created the movie, for the deaths of those American diplomats in Libya. I do, however, think he needs to reframe his understanding of Islam within a larger question of identity in the Muslim world. In a sick way, as my friend John pointed out on the Facebook, his point was proven: Islam is (or has become) a violent religion, as a movie made across the world from Libya and Egypt resulted in the deaths of American diplomats who weren’t associated with the movie in any way. I doubt the creator expected this drastic of a reaction, but I do believe he wanted to piss of Muslims. This is part of a larger trend of anti-Islamic discourse in American media that reached a dizzying climax after 9/11 and has been plateauing ever since. This discourse has been maintained in order to more firmly secure an American identity, one which (in this election) seems to be in flux as two warring parties attempt to dictate what slightly different direction the country will take under their rule.
In “Margins and Mainstreams,” Gary Okihiro makes the claim that the “margins” of society (minorities) define the “mainstreams” (white people, etc.). Essentially, the majority defines themselves in opposition to the minority, meaning that the actions of minorities can have an exaggerated effect on the way that the majority identifies themselves (I just tried to summarize a really great book. It’s worth buying). For example, the Civil Rights movement in the United States led to the repeal of Jim Crow laws (though they are being dusted off by the modern GOP), de-segregation of schools, and the guarantee of civil liberties for all races and creeds. Gender equality saw a big boost when women were needed to work in factories during WWII, but the fight to give women equal pay continues to this day. Some of these victories are held up as defining characteristics of the American experience, when it is clear that without the efforts of minorities they would not exist. At the same time, the fear of the “Yellow Peril” was borne out of frustrations with large numbers of Asian immigrants in the U.S., and defining them as distinctly “Other” made it easier for white Americans to define themselves (“not Asian”). This type of fear has resurfaced with different minorities (Latinos, specifically), and “The Innocence of Muslims” attempts to tap into the distinct “otherness” of Muslims in relation to Christians (this is a great book on the topic). Okihiro notes that the success of Asian-Americans made them a “model minority,” classifying them as hard-working and family oriented. Asians are a “model” because they have managed to assimilate into society and adopt the “purely American” ideals of hard work and capitalism. In a sense, this slight mental elevation of a specific minority helps Americans define exactly what it is about their country that makes it exceptional (literally anyone can succeed, right?).
Similarly, Fredrik Barth argues that the most important part of identity formation is boundary construction. Being able to argue that they are not like you is an essential part of identity; “Othering” an opposing group is necessary to bind otherwise disparate groups together. In order to form a homogeneous nation-state, the “other” must be defined and removed in some way. The Balkans are the most violent example, as ethnic Albanians, Bulgarians, Greeks, etc. have endured forced deportations, the banning of “non-official” languages, and in some cases orchestrated massacres of civilians based on ethnicity or religion. Part of the definition of whiteness today involves pointedly noting that they are not immigrants or foreigners, that they are “native-born” and that they exhibit their specific interpretation of the American dream. American media has been (consciously or not) following this pattern, specifically since 9/11, by painting Islam as backwards, violent, and most importantly monolithic. Think about the Wisconsin white supremacist who murdered six Sikhs in their place of worship. His knowledge of the “other” was so incomplete that he lumped Sikhs in with Muslims in his attempt to cleanse his country. Also note the way that coverage of this incident (similar to the Aurora, Colorado shooting) attempted to paint the shooter as a lone fanatic who is not indicative of his family, neighbors, or friends. Would a Muslim shooter get the same treatment?
Let’s talk about identity.
We can use my experience as an example. I have a relatively complicated identity, but I will list off the categories that I belong to, starting with “most frequently associated with” and on down. I am:
Male, Turkish, American, Liberal (Democratic, if you must know #Nobama20always), Atheist, Student.
I can choose any of these identities because I have a slightly lighter skin tone than most Middle Easterners, I speak without an accent, and I dress/act like most Americans do. My physical appearance, though different, is counterbalanced by my lack of accent and general assimilation into American culture. For many minorities, that “option” is unavailable, because their identity has been decided for them by the culture of the majority (see: Martin, Trayvon).
According to Stephen Cornell, identity undergoes a constant, circular process (again, I’m paraphrasing like woah here, so bear with me). First, identity is shaped by circumstance. Where we are born, and when, has a massive impact on our lives (duh). Slight changes to these circumstances shift our identities in exaggerated ways. Second, our identity reconstructs our circumstances. The identity we have adopted for ourselves, whether we know it or not, shapes the way that we understand the world. As a liberal, atheist, minority, student who has a tumblr, I am ensconced in the “liberal talk radio” (thanks again Spencer) world of the internet that flies off the deep end every time Mitt Romney makes a subtle comment that can be construed as racist.
My identity changes my interpretation of the world around me, meaning that if someone wishes to understand my reactions, they must couch the event I am reacting to within the larger framework of my identity. This is a super long and fancy way of saying “don’t just walk a mile in someone’s shoes, maybe ask them why they bought that specific pair, visit the store they bought them in, and then try to imagine what kind of feet would fit in that particular shoe.” Goddamn that is a great fucking analogy. OK, we’re getting closer so hang on.
Dr. Hakan Yavuz said something in my Nationalities class the other day that caught my ear. He said: “Modern Islam is an identity of resistance.” What this means is that while Islam is vastly different in different countries (and communities, for that matter), to many Muslims their faith has become an essential marker in their fight against Western expansion into their lives, be it economically, culturally, or militarily. Their religion has become a primary part of their identity and as a result they react very harshly when that identity is threatened. When we couple that with Cornell’s ideas on circumstance, it’s easy to see why being born in Egypt or Libya might change the way they interpret world events.
Both nations have had parallel (though unique) experiences with Imperialism and the West that result in a hostile, at best, interpretation of U.S. foreign policy. In their experience, the West not only doesn’t care about Egyptian or Libyan people, they actively support nations (Israel) and ideas (globalization, forced modernity) that run counter to Islam. Well, not “Islam” itself, but their version of Islam. The United States spent years propping up Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, a largely unpopular and cruel leader. Once he was deposed, the Muslim Brotherhood took control of the government by harkening back to Islam and promising to counter Western influence.
Protesters do not have the right to murder people who insult their prophet (after all, God isn’t real), nor is censorship of film or other media necessary to appease a group of thin-skinned people half a world away. Islam is more than just a religion… it has become a symbol of resistance to Western Imperialism. When someone in the U.S. criticizes Islam, they might believe that this criticism is taking place in a vacuum, but that’s not how the real world works. To many Muslims in the Middle East, this movie is just one more way that Islam has been attacked by the West, and rather than attempt to understand the complex nature of identity and religion in the modern world, many Americans are willing to assume that Islam is a violent and backwards religion, while many Muslims are willing to assume that Americans are intent on destroying their way of life.
It’ll be really interesting to see where this goes over the next few weeks, as religious and political leaders take stock of the damage and attempt to use the mistrust and fear to consolidate their own power. I’ll be watching closely, in between the internet cat-videos.
Here are a few news and opinion articles on the topic that were really interesting. Glenn Greenwald’s is a particularly good read (it’s the first one on the list).
Also, this is a great quote by Gary Okihiro that I couldn’t really work into the piece:
The core values and ideals of the nation emanate not from the mainstream but from the margins—from among Asian and African Americans, Latinos, and American Indians, women, and gays and lesbians. In their struggles for equality, these groups have helped preserve and advance the principles and ideals of democracy and have thereby made America a freer place for all (Okihiro, p. ix)