Muhammad and Middleton
Two scandals have dominated the news, at least in Europe and America, over the week following the 9/11 anniversary. The first, which has yet to abate as I write this, is the widespread protests against a pathetic anti-Muslim film trailer trolled from Youtube, rhetorically warmed over in Arabic and promoted by extremist Muslims to stir up violence. The troll took a toll with the American ambassador and several other Americans killed in Libya, violent clashes in Egypt and in Yemen and a range of protests (many of which have remained peaceful) across Muslim communities. The second, which is equally absurd as a pretext, is the voyeuristic publishing by French, Irish and Italian tabloids of a long-distance photograph of the naked breasts of Kate Middleton, the newly wed wife of Britain’s Prince William. The paparazzi have once again harmed Britain’s royal family, first by chasing Princess Diana and now by turning a powerful lens on a private moment in a private home while Diana’s son vacationed in France. In both the body is all about politics.
The film “Innocence of Muslims” is anything but innocent. It is a shoddy film produced by a shady character with ties to rightwing Christian conspiratorial views. The invidious attempt by the “creator,” a Copt by birth and a convicted criminal living in California, to link the film to a fictitious Israel backed by “Jewish money” heightens the travesty. The film as a film is a flop, but the hype on all sides about the film has become deadly, a surreal remake of the street anger over Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses and the Danish cartoons lampooning the Prophet Muhammad. Along with the Elmer Gantryish Terry Jones on his crusade to burn the Quran, this “film” is alive mainly because of the Internet and news media that irresponsibly delight in the sensational. I do not doubt that most Muslims are offended, as are most Christians and Jews at such needless defamation, but the cable news images of militant attackers outside American embassies shouting “Allahu Akbar” becomes the mediated pars pro toto.
The offense of the film is slandering the Prophet of a religion that an estimated billion and a half people can be identified with. It is not simply a matter of physically portraying (or seeming to) the body of Muhammad, but casting his soul as evil. When Muhammad is vilified as a child molester, this is hardly a new claim. It extends back centuries in the Islamophobic response of European Christians against rival empires which were Muslim. But the timing of the protests is like a lightning strike in a dry forest. The protests first took place in countries recently liberated from dictators in an “Arab Spring” that was motivated less by religious fervor than by economic desperation and political anger. In Libya, Egypt and Yemen the governments newly formed are not extremist, not like Khomeini’s Iran or the Afghan Taliban, but there are elements in each country which emulate the most extreme views on the Muslim right and want to gain power through violence.
Then there are the royal breasts, a scoop that follows earlier tabloid portrayal of Prince Harry’s royal jewels (for those with an imagination). One can understand why a French tabloid would want to make fun of the British royal family (just think of all those Monty Python skewerings of the French), but when the Irish magazine The Star showed Kate Middleton with nipples not pixelated, the British sense of decency was trotted out front and center. So far no one has been killed or injured due to the bare bosom on the newsstands, nor has the French Embassy been breached in England. The difference is not cultural, as much as Islamophobes might want it to be, but political at its core. The Youtube film trailer was part of the millions of other Youtube videos that just disappear into the mass of unedited garbage that can be and often is uploaded. Showing it in dubbed Arabic was a political act to incite violence. Showing a princess’s bare breasts is obviously an economic act to incite selling the tabloids. In both cases the “body” serves a broader purpose, whether sinister or just the normal extreme of greed.
As anthropologists we are well aware of the symbolic power of the human body. There is no more potent political frame. Public nudity, veiling in the West, “legitimate” rape, a woman’s right to choose, the legality of suicide: these issues not only have emotional impact in our society, but speak to the universal cultural tendency to write what we want on to bodies, our own and those we deem as others. In one sense the violence and harm caused by the rash reaction to a film that is without any redeeming value cannot be compared to the photographic exposure of a female body part. Yet, in another sense, both cases show the power of the body as more than a body, as a symbol of what should be held sacred. Profaning the sacred, as Durkheim noted a century ago, must be understood in its social context, not as though “religion” is sufficient to be interpreted as a thing in itself or an ultimate cause for violent action.
Daniel Martin Varisco is Professor of Anthropology and Director of Middle Eastern Studies at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York. Since 1978 he has conducted ethnographic and historical research in Yemen, Egypt and Qatar. His latest book is Reading Orientalism: Said and the Unsaid (University of Washington Press, 2007). He currently serves as editor of Contemporary Islam and Editor-in-Chief of CyberOrient (www.cyberorient.net), the online journal of the Middle East Section of the AAA. His regular blog is Tabsir: Insight on Islam and the Middle East (www.tabsir.net).