Monday, September 17, 2012

Muslims, the Middle East, and Musicals

A horrible event happened last week. Riots still continue this week even after the death of four Americans including the U.S. Ambassador to Libya.

What makes the situation even worse is that this was all sparked by the trailer to a poorly made movie that defames the Muslim Prophet Mohammad.  I wouldn't recommend watching the video, even though it's still up on youtube. It's mean spirited and clearly hacked together with green screen and duct tape. Any specific reference to the prophet was dubbed in later, so the actors and actresses didn't even know they were making an attack on the prophet.

It's hard to believe that such a hackneyed attempt at slander could be taken seriously by so many Muslims. That said, Muslims still have a history of getting upset about these things. Just recall the reaction that the Muslim community had to Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard's depiction of Mohammad. In Muslim law there are strict laws against idolatry and it is forbidden to depict the prophet Mohammad in any visual way. Furthermore, according to Muslim law, the insulting of the prophet Mohammad is punishable by death. So there you have it, precedent; and really, America is such a far off place for many Muslims and demonized for decades. It almost seems inevitable that a poorly made production like this couldn't help but raise the ire of people living in the Middle East.

On the other side of the world, we Americans have gotten quite comfortable with insulting anything that catches our fancy. I don't know if we're totally a nothing-is-sacred society yet. We have some vocal individuals who believe that, and others who don't. By and large most American, whether they agree with the voices out there believe that people should have the freedom to say what they want. Even so, there are still things that universally upset us, we're probably less sensitive to religious insults and more sensitive to cultural ones (the campaign against bullying gay students comes to mind, racism, and general intolerance makes us upset); and so we've had to live in a world where people will say insensitive things and we've accepted that in order to allow ourselves the freedom to believe otherwise.  At the same time we try to persuade people to basically "not be mean to each other."

The filmmaker who made the anti-Mohammad film calls himself Sam Bacile. While he has every right to make any film he wants here in American, he clearly did wrong by being insensitive and insulting Muslims. He wasn't going to change any minds through his brazen depiction of a figure that Muslims love and revere. Personally I believe everyone has the right to believe what they want to believe according to their own hearts. There is certainly room to criticize the actions of certain Muslim people (the people who killed Ambassador Stephens, the perpetrators of 9/11, you could even say that Muslims just need to lighten up a little), but criticizing their Prophet does nothing. People should be judged by their actions, not whatever their beliefs are.

Here's an easy exercise for anyone to do. Think of a person who you revere, maybe it's a parent, maybe it's a historical figure like Mahatma Gandhi or Dr. Martin Luther King. Think of someone who means a lot to you. Now try to imagine some stranger mocking them, it doesn't feel very good no matter who you are. For some, it feels like a kind of schoolyard bully flashback. In order to not get upset or retaliate, it requires a certain amount of levelheadedness something that is acquired through years of maturing self-discipline.

I'm not saying that Muslims are childish, or that I understand the senseless violence that has been demonstrated. Furthermore complaining that Muslims should show restraint doesn't excuse the vitriol of the filmmaker. And if we're to live in a nicer gentler world, shouldn't we show kindness toward others, including their sacred beliefs.

Speaking of nicer and gentler things, this brings me to the world of musicals. What if that little film that Sam Bacile made wasn't a little film, but rather a full scale Broadway musical? What if it defamed a beloved prophet all in the context of a humorous, clever and lighthearted frolic through song? Would it still be okay to do it? What if Muslim didn't kill anyone because of it, would that make it acceptable? I wonder what the makers of Book of Mormon the Musical would say?

[UPDATE]: The Wall Street Journal posted a similar opinion piece by Bret Stephens.

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