Monday, October 1, 2012

The film and my grandmother

My grandmother held some beliefs that now strike us as slightly odd. One was that we Jews should go out of our way to respect Christian religious sensibilities.

For example, if she saw a home with laundry hanging outdoors on a Sunday, she would say, “I hope those aren’t Jewish people.” Because Sunday isn’t our Sabbath, we are certainly allowed to do laundry on Sunday. But she felt that conspicuously violating our neighbors’ Sabbath was wrong.

Most of us would no longer have that concern. I’ll admit, however, that I still feel uncomfortable about mowing my lawn on Sunday morning—but in a climate where it can easily rain for six consecutive days, I cut the grass whenever I can.

Most of us still try not to give deliberate and unnecessary offense.  That seems not to have been the case with the film Innocence of Muslims, the Arabic-dubbed trailer for which seems to have provoked riots in several countries and led to the assassination of Chris Stevens, the U.S. ambassador to Libya, and three of his staff.

Reports are still coming in about both the film and the assassination. The producer of the film, who called himself Sam Bacile, claimed to be an Israeli Jew and an American citizen, although the government of Israel denied any knowledge of him. The online magazine Tablet reports that the president of the production company was listed as Youssef Basseley, which sounds somewhat like Bacile. A man named Yousseff M. Basseley was convicted of bank fraud in Federal court in California in 2010.

Accounts of the film itself describe it as badly written and crudely produced. Actors say that they were duped about the nature of the film, and one actress states that her lines, originally not referring to Mohammed or Islam, were dubbed in post-production to change their references into religious ones. A posting at the On the Media blog confirms the dubbing, saying that it is obvious to both eye and ear.

There was more reason to doubt Bacile’s claim to be an Israeli Jew. In the U.S.. Bacile or Basile is usually an Arabic name, and postings on a YouTube account from which the film trailer was uploaded, associated with a Sam Bacile, are all in Arabic, not Hebrew or English. That account’s only “favorite” on YouTube is a video posted by a conservative Egyptian political party.

At this point it’s impossible to tell what the producer, whatever his name is, hoped to accomplish. I found it hard to believe that he thought such a bad film would have widespread influence in the United States, or that any Israeli would think that it would somehow help Israel. I didn’t reject the idea that the real purpose was to support radical Islamist parties in the Middle East.

However, it was eventually reported that his real name is Nakoula Basseley Nakoula and that he is a Coptic Christian.

Whatever the intention was, some things are clear.

First: it’s wrong to kill anyone because of a film, novel, or painting that you consider blasphemous. That applies not only to our diplomats in Libya, who had nothing to do with the film, but also to the actual authors, producers, and artists. It’s wrong even in cultures that say it’s right.

Second: although the First Amendment guarantees our right to say and publish almost anything we want, there are times when restraint may be the most effective strategy. We don’t need to make public criticisms of those aspects of another religion that don’t affect us directly, and anything we do say needs to be 100% accurate.

Third: we should try not to confuse religious and political disagreements. The theological differences between Judaism and Islam are small compared to those between either of them and Christianity. The conflict between Israel and the neighboring Arab countries is political, not religious.

Other points are less clear. We generally wouldn’t object to a joke that made fun of Moses or Jeremiah (although it is hard to think of anything funny about Jeremiah). Christians might tolerate a joke about Jesus or the Virgin Mary, but many would consider it inappropriate for most settings. Many have protested works of art that they felt showed disrespect for Christianity, Jesus, or the Cross.

Muslims, however, would not tolerate anything that appeared to ridicule or defame Mohammed, even if it were clear that the intent was humor. Does this make it more objectionable to joke about Mohammed than about Moses?

A realistic answer seems to be yes. If my grandmother wouldn’t even hang laundry outdoors on Sunday, I think I should avoid deliberately causing serious offense. Remember that the objection is in the mind of the recipient. There are some jokes we might tell one another that we would consider anti-Jewish if others told them.

Does this mean that Islam is off-limits for criticism? The answer to that has to be no, the same as it is with respect to any other religion. For example, if a student in our religious school were to ask “Is Jesus the same as God?” his or her teacher, although avoiding disrespect for Christian belief, will reply that Jews believe otherwise.

There are certain questions that should be asked whenever we speak about other religions: Is what we are saying true? Are we saying it to express our own beliefs, or for some other purpose? Is there a genuine need to say it at all?