In the last week, people have been killed over a film. This film never existed. The whole thing was a con, done by a previously convicted conman named Nakoula. This man is very skilled at exploiting people’s weaknesses and prejudices, to turn people against themselves and against each other.
The deception has several layers, aimed against Muslims as well as against Western intellectuals and politicians. To understand these deceptions, let us first analyze the two very different filmmaking products involved in this conflict: The big film that does not exist, and the little Youtube clip that does exist. But before we do that, lets have a brief look at the nature of conmen and Internet trolls.
The act of trolling
On the Internet, we have a phenomenon called a “troll”. This is a person who says things in a calculated way, designed to stir up emotion and pit people against each other. A successful troll knows what button to push. He knows how to make people angry at each other and how to make them stumble over their own entrenched positions.
In other words, an Internet Troll is very much like a con man: One of those professional deceivers who exploit people economically by herding them into cul-de-sacs of the mind. Two classic tricks of the professional conman: To make you believe that he has something huge to offer or threaten with, and to make you invest so much so that you must keep investing or accept that you are about to suffer a terrible loss.
In this case, a previously convicted conman has taken up the role of Internet Troll.
The “film” and the fears it prey upon
It is a full-length movie. Created by America, also known as Hollywood. Scheduled to be played in actual cinemas all over the world! Seen by millions and millions of western people, while certainly being even worse in it’s content than the horrible “trailer”. This awful film is produced by a wealthy white American. And it is financed by The Jewish Capitalists! Surely you can see how the global Zionist conspiracy is behind it all! Well, except for the fact that it is all a lie.
This film never existed. By presenting the youtube clip as a representation of such a film, Nakoula preys on weaknesses common among islamists as well as on weaknesses common among western intellectuals. Exploiting these weaknesses is most likely the calculated intention behind making the youtube clip as well as presenting it in this particular way.
In the Middle East in general, and among its political Islamists in particular, it is common to believe that “the West” and “the jews/Zionists” are plotting against the countries of the Middle East, against Muslims, and against Islam. Many feel very strongly about this.
Among Western intellectuals, it is very common to want to take the side of the oppressed against the oppressors. This is often combined with being very self-conscious about Colonialism and western Imperialism, while being oblivious to oppression and Imperialism committed by as well as against people who are not westerners.
By presenting the youtube clip in this way, Nakoula maximized the chance that it would be condemned by “Muslims” and “Westerners” alike, but for all the wrong reasons. Here comes the bait-and-switch.
Over to the Youtube clip
Unlike the fake movie it represents, the real youtube clip is not so impressive. Any idiot with a hand camera and a grudge could have created it. And that’s exactly who created it: A random creep who had a grudge, a camera, and experience with tricking people. This simple bait-and-switch is the first part of the con: Making people believe that the little thing you have is much more than it is. Making people believe that your tiny melting icecube is the tip of a huge iceberg.
But there is much more to the con itself. The clip actually has three parts. The third part is the part that portrays Muhammad in a very negative light. This is the part that has been given all attention in the public sphere. However, this part is probably nothing more than bait. Nakoula may or may not hate Muhammad, but most likely he doesn’t care at all: His insults against Muhammad was a calculated move to stir up violence, and probably nothing more than that. The real poison lies not in this third part, but in the first two parts and in the title.
Part 1: The side of the oppressed
The first part of the youtube clip is about Egyptian copts being victimized by a brutal mob of Muslims. The classic “torches and pitchforks” routine. Well, torches and scimitars in this case. For context, note that a vast majority of Egypt’s population are Muslims, and that the Egyptian government is now in the hand of a representative of political Islam. Note that violent persecution of Egyptian Copts exists in reality. This context is very important for Nakoula’s con.
There are three factions in this part:
* The mob: Depicted as being full of hatred and intolerance. The oppressors. Torching a hospital, murdering a defenseless woman who was probably a nurse.
* The victims: Depicted as being innocent and good people – they are presented as pacifistic doctors and nurses who would never harm or threaten anyone.
* And finally, the police: Depicted as letting the murderous mob have their way. It is insinuated that they are in league with the mob. As a bonus, their leader is ambiguously white. To many viewers, this group will represent not only the police of Egypt, but also the United Nations, the European Union, the USA and so on.
This part sets the mood and defines what the whole thing is really about. It is very efficient propaganda.
Part 2: The real hate-speech
This part is very short, but it is pure dynamite of hate. It is a brief message, delivered by a certain person. Two aspects: The message and the person. Both are important. Lets start with the person.
He is a doctor, and he speaks as if his hate-filled overgeneralizations were scientific facts. He’s even wearing a lab coat, for crying out loud. His message comes in a form that looks as if it was mathematical formulas, although it is very obviously not. He fills the narrative role of “Reasonable Authority Figure”: A person who the audience is encouraged to trust without questioning. To really set this mood, he even has an in-story audience that treats him with reverence and turns to him for answers.
Even more importantly, he is not white. He is very clearly 100% Egyptian, a part of the oppressed Coptic minority. Another piece of the puzzle for what Nakoula is really up to.
So, what message is it that we get from this person, positioned as being both a “reasonable authority figure” and a “victimized member of an oppressed minority”? Well, it is really three messages:
* He claims that Islamic terrorists are not really human. That there’s a difference between “Islamic terrorist” and “man”. In the context, it is very obvious that “man” refers to “human”, not to “male”.
* This difference is implied to be Muhammad.
* Thus, Nakoula also indirectly imply that those Muslims who are not terrorists are not real Muslims.
In my opinion, the third bullet point is the most disgusting part. It is a vicious slur against the overwhelming majority of all Muslims. Pure Antimuslimism: It is the “real representative” issue again, a core pillar of categorism.
Finally, the name itself
Nakoula obviously knows the art of schoolyard bullying. What is the point of calling a film like this “Innocence of Muslims”? Well, there are probably two points to that. One is a big “fuck you” to western intellectuals for not hating the Muslims of the world. A message of “this is what you consider to be innocence”. Or even worse, underscoring the position held by the “doctor” character.
The other is pure schoolyard bullying. The whole point of making this movie was to make it as infamous and hated as possible. Giving it the title “Innocence of Muslims” fills the function of smearing the word “innocence”, turning it into a bad word when connected to Muslims or Islam. Nakoula is giving a teasing tool for those who want to bully Muslims: Simply laugh while calling them “innocent”.
So, what are the deceptions here?
There are (at least) two surfaces and two big acts of trolling. The two surfaces are to insult all Muslims and to encourage everyone who hates Muslims. The two acts of trolling are very different from each other. One is directed Muslims, the other is directed at western left-wing intellectuals and politicians.
Trolling against Muslims
The trolling done against Muslims has two levels. The first level I have explained above. Pretend that there was an actual film backed by powerful people, not merely some guy with a camera and a grudge.
The second level is the principle known as the Sunk Cost Fallacy. Since the Muhammad cartoons, Nakoula must have known that if his stunt gained fame then it would lead to a lot of violence with people dying. That must have been part of his plan. He knew that some groups would use his film to incite hatred against the West, he knew that some leaders would use the controversy to divert attention from the real problems. Having made such a great fuss over a silly little youtube clip, it is not easy to back down.
It is not easy to say: “Never mind, we got fooled. Now we know that this was not a real movie funded by a Zionist conspiracy, it was merely a little youtube clip that doesn’t deserve our attention.” No, it is so much easier to keep focusing on how insulting the youtube clip is. Thus, the protesters have backed themselves into a corner. They have taken an impossible position: “If one individual somewhere in the world has a pen or a hand camera or whatever, we must all spend our time protesting against him whenever he say something we find insulting.” In other words, they are telling the schoolyard bullies of the world to please bully them as much as they can, promising to always give the desired reaction of impotent rage. This is good for the worst of Islamic extremists, and it’s good for those who hate Muslims. But it is very bad for everyone else in the world.
Trolling against the West
Being used to apologize when Muslims feel offended, believing the bullshit about a wealthy American backed by Jewish capitalists, western politicians and intellectuals were quick to condemn the film without reservation. Lack of willingness to censor the youtube clip or prosecute the producer was justified by the “free speech” principle only.
Among those two hate Muslims, it is common to believe that the politicians and intellectuals of Europe are in league with “the Muslims” and their alleged plot to take over the world. This conspiracy theory is of course pure nonsense: While some Islamists dream about a global caliphate, they don’t have the Muslims of the world under their sway – and not the governments & universities of Europe either!
By creating a false premise, Nakoula managed to create false evidence for this conspiracy theory, with western politicians and intellectuals talking only about the need to respect Muslims while ignoring the plight of the persecuted Copts.
Lets say that the youtube clip had been presented in a honest way, but somehow got famous anyhow. Surely western politicians and intellectuals would still denounce the hate-speech done in the clip, but they would also discuss the persecution done against the Copts.
Thanks to Nakoula, we now have more tension in the world. We have more Islamist pressure against the young democracies in the Middle East. We have more of the false dichotomy where people in their minds divide the world into “Western” and “Muslim”, in spite of the obvious facts that many Muslims are Western while most non-Western people are not Muslims either. As if a geographical region and a religion were comparable entities! Thus reinforcing the false concept that a world religion is capable of waging war against a country, and thus that the country has “reason to defend itself”.
We also have a situation where the discourse of condemning “blasphemy” has been allowed to dominate over the discourse of condemning ‘hate-speech”. We have people all over the world talking as if the problem with this youtube clip is not that it incites hatred and violence against groups (religious and otherwise), but rather that it portray a religion in a way not favored by followers of that religion. As a result we have a discourse that invites violence, a discourse that promotes the idea that perceived “insults” must be met by force rather than dialogue. The president of Indonesia has made an attempt to start a global dialogue about how to handle issues like this. This is a good idea. Sadly, his attempt is based on the failed concept of Blasphemy, the same concept that has contributed to so much violence against minorities in his own country.
Malice: Successful or stupid?
So. Has Nakoula been successful or not? Well, that depends entirely on what his ultimate purpose or purposes were.
* Contributing to extremist religion (Islamist as well as Christianist) gaining power at the expense of secularism and moderate religion? Successful.
* Contributing to polarization and tension? Successful.
* Contributing to radicalize young and angry Egyptian Copts? Probably successful.
* Contributing to radicalize western antimuslimists and Christian extremists? Probably successful.
* Encouraging some non-Muslims to pick on Muslims and make fun of Islam? Surely successful, considering how some people reacted to the Danish Muhammad cartoon controversy.
* Becoming (in)famous and getting a note in the history books? Successful.
* Getting people to notice the persecution against Copts? Completely unsuccessful: If Nakoula had such intentions, he went about it in the entirely wrong way. His stunt with pretending to be a wealthy American backed by Jewish capitalist was as counterproductive as a strategy could get, if his goal was to help the Copts. All he managed to achieve was to make their plight come across as nothing more than a petty excuse for antimuslimism.
* Contributing to anything meaningful, in any way? No, neither directly or short-term indirectly. The reactions to the reactions to the reactions may eventually prove meaningful. But that is in spite of the film rather than because of it.
The bottom line, what kind of world do we want?
Surely not a world that catches fire whenever some random person decides to voice how much he disagrees with one religion or another. And surely not a world where the religion police can silence anyone who has an idea they suspect could make someone else angry.
To achieve a world that is better than that, we need democracy and education for everyone. As the world becomes more and more globalized with global communication, it can less and less afford ignorance and hate. And with that I mean the actual ignorance and hate, not merely the expressions of it. To keep the lid on is simply to keep the pressure up, building towards the next explosion.
I don’t know what kind of world Nakoula is trying to achieve, but I don’t think it is one that I would like to live in.