Op-Ed: Ignoring 'Innocence'

The "Innocence of Muslims" film controversy, which resulted in riots in the Middle East and the death of the US ambassador to Libya, seemingly exposed the many fault lines between the West and Islam. But that story line has quickly unraveled.

In Indonesia, fortunately, the reaction has been pretty calm. Apart from about a thousand people throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails at the US Embassy in Jakarta and small mobs elsewhere looking to attack McDonald's and KFC franchises - where no doubt the customers were fellow Muslims - the nation has absorbed "Innocence of Muslims" and wisely decided to let it go. In another week or so it should be forgotten.

In Libya, where Ambassador Chris Stevens died during a riot, a video surfaced showing Libyans entering the smoldering consulate building and trying to rescue Stevens, who was then barely alive. US security people had apparently evacuated the facility and lost track of their own ambassador. So much for us against them and the idea that all of Libya was on a rampage.

In the United States, one of the actresses who appeared in the film is suing the filmmaker for fraud, saying she signed up for something called "Desert Warrior" that had nothing to do with Islam, didn't mention the Prophet Muhammad and was later redubbed into "Innocence of Muslims" by the producer, Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, a native Egyptian and Coptic Christian. There goes the vast conspiracy theory.

That the film is beyond trashy and has the production values one might expect from an underfunded high school drama department has been well established. Indeed, I watched parts of the film - here in Indonesia on YouTube, after it was supposedly blocked on the local Internet - and it does not take long to see what a mess it is. It is laughably awful and offensive on many levels, but it is not concerted propaganda from the West or a centralized attack on Islam. It is "hate speech," not unlike similar efforts from idiotic neo-Nazis or the loony racist fringe in the United States. It is not worth getting worked up about.

I even found myself in the unusual position of nodding in agreement with the Indonesian Council of Ulema (MUI), which said that Muslims should calm down following the violent protests in Jakarta on Monday. "Muslims should not respond to the movie emotionally. Even if it humiliates and assaults [Islam], we shouldn't be provoked by other parties and should keep protecting the public interest," MUI's Muhyiddin Junaidi said.

Which makes me wonder why President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has put his name behind the idea of a UN protocol banning blasphemy and defamation of religion? Quite apart from the fact that such a protocol would be unenforceable, Indonesia has seen the damage that trying to ban blasphemy can do when it is used to bolster the arguments of extremists who want to impose their view of Islam on others.

No doubt the president has good intentions, but the notion that an international protocol could prevent insults against religion and keep passions in check is an illusion. Like that loony American preacher who wanted to burn the Koran last year, the efforts of this half-baked filmmaker should be roundly denounced as hate-filled and dangerous but protocols would only embolden such behavior.

It is hard to legislate against stupidity and taking the actions of some renegade American idiots as a justification to impose greater orthodoxy here or anywhere else would be a "cure" that would be worse than the disease. Given the sheer number of competing and contradictory religious views in the world, the last thing we need is anyone trying to prevent hurt feelings through international treaties.

In a vast country like Indonesia, the reaction to the film was by and large muted. Life went on with few incidents, which is how it should be. We get up, we go to work or school, we live our lives - and people like Nakoula Basseley Nakoula should barely matter. By paying attention to a marginal fool like that, we risk putting the court jester on the throne.

(A. Lin Neumann is a co-founder of Asia Sentinel. This column appeared originally in the Jakarta Globe)