Three weeks ago, I wrote a reflection on Rimsha, the unfortunate young girl arrested recently in Pakistan under the infamous blasphemy law. In that last entry, I tried to articulate the reasons behind the absolute necessity of unrestricted freedom of expression, including open and free criticism of any form of political or religious authority, and even the right to distasteful or offensive speech, in order to promote true democratic societies.
In my short piece, I made reference to the glorious and iconic Monty Python movie, “The life of Brian”, an acerb and witty criticism of (dis-) organized religion and brilliant parody on the life of a messianic Judean prophet born in Nazareth a little over 2,000 years ago.
A few days later, I got this sickening feeling that my latest blog entry had unfortunately been quite prophetic – as indeed it became all about the prophet once again all over the world. The “Innocence of Muslims” produced by Nakoula Basseley Nakoula enflamed the Muslim world in a vortex of enraged intolerance and fanaticism. In a tragic course of events, the U.S. ambassador in Libya, Christopher Stevens, was murdered by an angry mob.
I could not help but reflect again on the disproportionate and extreme reactions induced by this rather obscure and ridiculous film. The “Innocence of Muslims” is an extremely low budget and particularly bad movie. It clearly should be classified as a “D” movie, “D” for distasteful and disgraceful. Many rightfully find it reprehensible and appalling. It is probably all of the above, but bad taste and inappropriateness are certainly not justifications for censorship and incitation to violence.
The reactions of some radical Muslims criticizing the movie in such an outrageous manner has resulted immediately in a dramatic increase in the viewing of this totally obscure movie that had only been seen by a handful of people. Paradoxically, the obvious and predictable outcome of such actions is always diametrically opposed to the intended objectives. In the last days the “Innocence of Muslims” has been seen by tens of millions of people around the world. It would probably never have reached an audience of more than a few thousands without the indirect exposure it received from this obsessive medial hype around the world.
Ironically, the reactions of Muslim extremists time and time again confirm the very aspects of Islam being denounced in such productions. How can anyone dare to imply that Islam – or at the very least some interpretations of Islam – could be a source of fanaticism, intolerance and violence? This can’t be tolerated! Soon thousands of fanatical Muslims will take over the streets to object to such productions, rioting, killing, burning, creating unbelievable bloodshed and carnage to denounce – and prove at the same time – such infidel allegations.
In fact, what is happening today, reminds me of what happened in the Christian world some 30 years ago.
The “Innocence of Muslims” reminded me in some way of “The Life of Brian” – albeit only from its subject matter, the life of one of the prophets, and certainly not because of its dismal inelegance, obtuse visual language and lack of intelligence.
However, what surprised me most, are the incredible similarities between the extreme and fanatical reactions of the Muslim world today and the reactions of the Christian communities all over the world when “The Life of Brian” was released in 1979.
At the time, after spending six years in a Catholic boarding school, I had just started studying philosophy at the UCL University in Louvain and was, as always, trying to comprehend and measure the impact of religious fervor that Christianity, and particularly Catholicism, exerted on my life and the lives of other members of the human tribe.
I remember vividly the objections of all Christian communities against the Monty Python movie. Pope John Paul II, who had just been elected, took a very strong stance against “The Life of Brian”, calling it “an offense to all Christians, an offense to the human race and the entire universe – including dark stabat matter and all other undiscovered matters of any hue, shape or shade”.
The following week, the Vatican promptly issued a “fatwa” against Solomon Rush-Didi, the author of the book, “The Satiric Verses”, on which “The Life of Brian” was loosely based. Over its private network called “Vatican dira t’on” (dont if faut, bien entendu, se méfier), the Roman Catholic authority offered, US$3,300,000 for the execution of Mr. Rush-Didi, whom we, anticlerical and «bouffeurs de curés», used to call “Didi” with sympathy and affection. They also offered $25, (the equivalent of 79,850,000,000,000,000 Italian liras at the time), for the pipe of Graham Chapman, the leather jacket of Terry Jones, John Cleese’s moustache and the scalps of Terry Gilliam and Michael Palin.
As anticipated, the very next days, a mob of angry priests and nuns took to the streets of many cities; Paris, Warsaw and Rome to name a few. Union Jacks and American flags were savagely burned. Stones and Molotov cocktails filled with holy water were thrown at British embassies around the world. Some priests strapped bombs under their robes. The Vatican had promised a direct one-way ticket to paradise and 30 virgins – all called Mary without exception – to the first priest who would manage to blow himself up in the arms of Mr. Rush-Didi or any of the members of the Monty Python crew.
Soon, Protestants, Greek and Russian Orthodox, Copts, Mormons, Calvinists, Seven Day Adventists and even Jehovah Witnesses joined the hordes of zealots, burning everything that had any remote British connotation. Shockingly, Anglican clerics even tried to set fire to jars of pudding in Canterbury. French priests called it “la crème de la crème brulée”, in memory of the heretics burned during the Inquisition. Queen Elizabeth II spoke on the BBC the same evening, urging the Archbishop and all his followers to respect traditional British values and dairy concoctions of any kind.
It was clearly a war of civilization against obscurantism. “They were relentless”, said John Cleese of the Jehovah Witnesses. “They kept knocking on my door and slipping literature in my mailbox. It was truly hell on earth”.
The world seemed to have lost any reason.
And here we go again …