IF YOU HAVEN’T seen the 13-minute YouTube trailer of “Innocence of Muslims,” it’s worth a look, if only to witness the ultimate collision of bigotry and bad production values. Posted to YouTube last summer, dubbed recently into Arabic, the video features an Ashton Kutcher type as a murderous and lecherous Mohammed. It’s filmed on a green screen so crude that, at times, the characters seem to be floating above the desert sands.
Andrew Goldberg, a filmmaker, watched the clip in his New York office with his production staff last week and thought, at first, that it was a joke. “I’ve seen an awful lot of Middle Eastern filmmaking, and at its absolute worst, it’s not this bad. This is singular,” he told me. One of the editors of Goldberg’s 2007 film “Anti-Semitism in the 21st Century” had a similar reaction on Facebook: “ ‘Horseman Without a Horse’ blows this one out of the water.”
He was referring to a 41-part miniseries that first aired on Egyptian state television — a kind of anti-Semitic flip side to “Innocence of Muslims,” albeit with better acting and lighting. According to the Anti-Defamation League, the series was based on a hoax known as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which describes a Jewish conspiracy to rule the world. It includes such timeworn falsehoods as the notion that Jews kill Christian children and use their blood to make matzoh.
And it’s one key to understanding how an obscure YouTube video could launch international riots.
At the time this column went to press, it still wasn’t clear precisely who made or financed “Innocence of Muslims”; some of the actors have declared that they didn’t even know the film was going to be about Islam. It also wasn’t clear what role the trailer played in the deadly attacks on the US Consulate in Benghazi.
But as protests spread across the Middle East, it was clear that many were viewing the clip not as a laughable production by a fringe group of extremists, but as something sanctioned by the US government. That’s why the US Embassy in Egypt issued a statement — before anyone was killed — attempting to distance the US government from the actions of a few bigoted people in America.
How such a statement amounts to an “apology for America” is one of those enduring mysteries of Mitt Romney. Still, even Mitt seems to accept as self-evident, as most Americans do, that anyone can post a clip on YouTube, without government involvement or approval.
But free speech may be harder to understand on the Middle Eastern street, when some of the most virulent prejudice does, in fact, come sanctioned by the state. That’s the context of “Horseman Without a Horse,” which also aired on other networks throughout the Middle East — and was described, in the Egyptian press, as true.
As Goldberg points out, this is standard practice among oppressive regimes: diverting attention from the government’s misdeeds by focusing on a scapegoat. One certain impediment to Middle Eastern peace is the official dissemination of anti-Semitic hatred. Children grow up with state-approved propaganda and little access to counterexamples. Bigotry becomes ingrained. This spring “Horseman” was scheduled to be rebroadcast on Egypt’s privately owned Al-Tahrir TV.
Yes, there are some bigots in America, too. And, yes, there’s a huge difference between producing an offensive movie and taking part in a violent mob. But if enough Middle Easterners equate the American fringe with the US government, we have a problem. Especially if people are already inclined to see our government as all-powerful.
As a reporter years ago, I covered the recovery of an EgyptAir jet that plummeted into Nantucket Sound. Many relatives of the victims, reared in Egypt, didn’t understand why the mighty United States couldn’t retrieve intact bodies from the bottom of the sea. “It’s so easy for them — 270 feet? It’s nothing for them,” one victim’s cousin said at the time. “All this technology? They can’t find anything from the plane?”
The flip side of American strength is the notion that our government is in total control — that it can make anything happen, even a movie that’s embarrassingly bad. Explaining our messy, complex culture of free speech will be an increasingly critical task. As Romney ought to know, that’s what diplomacy is for.Joanna Weiss can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @JoannaWeiss.