US ambassador to Libya killed in violence over anti-Islam film

The reaction to a nonsensical and offensive film has sparked protests in Bengazi and Cairo.

With the US ambassador to Libya killed in Bengazi and a protest of 2,000 in Cairo raising an Al-Qaeda-associated flag above the US embassy on the anniversary of 9/11, it is clear the reaction to a small video published online yesterday has got out of hand.

The YouTube clip of a film named "Innocence of Muslims" has been reported in the (rumour-filled) Egyptian press to have been the work of Koran-burning Florida Pastor Terry Jones and Coptic Egyptian Christians, who make up about 10 per cent of the population in Egypt. It was in fact produced by an Israeli filmmaker named Sam Bacile. "Islam is a cancer," he told the Wall Street Journal. "The movie is a political movie. It's not a religious movie."

The film itself is comic in its ridiculous condemnation of Islam, almost a satire of far-right Christians’ worst stereotypes about the Middle East. It features a cast of orange-looking Americans with large stick-on beards attacking Christians and burning down their houses.

Scenes of the Prophet’s life take place against a static computerised desert backdrop and include historical incongruities such as plastic-looking weapons taken from a range of periods and women combining their hijabs with low cut mini-dresses.

The film accuses Muhammad of paedophilia, extortion, womanising, drinking wine, being gay (“Is the master dominant or submissive?” a follower asks, while Muhammad replies “both - remember the night at the gym?”), terrible grammar “how pleasurable is our Islamic ways”, and generally portrays him as being a murderous brute. A 102-year-old woman with an extremely strong New York accent claims “never have I seen such a murderous thug as Muhammad”, before being dragged away attached to a camel's leg.

Other figures from the Koran, such as Bilal, make an appearance. Although a freed slave of Ethiopian descent, known to be a companion of the Prophet famed for his beautiful voice, he is here presented as a large overweight white man with strange markings on his face.

The film has caused conspiracy theories to fly. Was it a plot by Morsi to provoke the US on the anniversary of 9/11? A Salafi plan to spread sectarian tensions? Protests are rumoured to intensify in Cairo today, with the violent football fans the Ultras Ahlawy heading down to the embassy. Sheikhs in Egypt are already calling for the revocation of citizenship of Copts living abroad.

All over a film that is so ridiculous it seems like a parody of itself. Much like the Danish cartoon controversy, something trivial has highlighted extreme underlying tensions and insecurities. They say that the offensive cartoon caused widespread anti-government protests in Libya. The film may also have brought to the surface tensions which will be harder to bury.

“Man + X = Islamic Terrorist” one character in the film philosophises in a characteristically nonsensical scene. What is X, we are left to wonder. By this film's estimation, the most obvious conclusion would be fake tan, a cheap beard, and some strong glue.

A still from "Innocence of Muslims".
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Putin's vote-winning trick? He makes power personal

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular. Yet President Putin is immune to voter's discontent.

A week before Russia’s parliamentary elections, the central square in Ekaterinburg – the fourth-largest city in Russia, a thousand miles east of Moscow – was packed with people, huddling close on a wet September night. They faced a stage decorated with a poster imploring the crowd to vote for “ours”, meaning United Russia, Vladimir Putin’s political party.

Yet it wasn’t politics for which thousands of people had braved the rain – it was music. During the perestroika and glasnost years of post-Soviet openness, Ekaterinburg was the cradle of the Russian rock scene. The home-grown bands Nautilus Pompilius, Chaif and Agata Kristi sang about freedom and change. Thus, this free concert to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the legendary Sverdlovsk Rock Club was bound to draw a crowd, and United Russia latched on to that.

A message from Dmitry Medvedev, the United Russia leader, praising local rock bands for their bravery “in those days when freedom was in deficit”, was read to the assembled fans. If freedom was a powerful word thirty years ago it has little impact on Russians today. Turnout in the election on 18 September was less than 50 per cent (and only 41.5 per cent in the Ekaterinburg region), a sign of the general political apathy. Before they went to the polls, it was hard to find anyone who was enthusiastic about voting.

“Why should I bother with voting? The result is clear: United Russia will, as always, win,” says Vyacheslav Bakhtin, who owns a small construction company in Ekaterinburg. He added: “Elections are the last thing on my mind. My business has been suffering for the last two years. We couldn’t even afford to go on a family vacation this summer.”

The Russian economy is struggling because of low oil prices, trade embargoes and geopolitical concerns. There have been public spending cuts, and the free float of the rouble led to currency devaluation and high inflation (7 per cent in August). Unemployment is rising and the base interest rate is 10.5 per cent.

There are many reasons for Russians to want a change in government, yet it appears that people do not see the link between their daily struggles and Putin’s policies.

Anna Mikhailova has recently returned from a tour of the Golden Ring of Russia (a circuit of medieval cities to the north-east of Moscow), where there is a stark contrast between the restored onion-domed churches and the crumbling villages.

“People live in poverty in crammed kummunalki [Soviet-style communal flats with several families sharing one kitchen and bathroom],” she tells me. “But they still talk about Putin the Saviour, standing up for Mother Russia.”

Apart from United Russia, 13 parties were judged eligible to stand, but the range of choice was an illusion. Olga, who requested anonymity for her own safety, explained. “We have one party – United Russia – a few pseudo-opposition parties, the Communists, the LDPR and Fair Russia who support Putin’s cause, and a bunch of nobodies that people don’t care about.”

Indeed, Gennady Zyuganov, who has led the Communist Party since 1993, campaigned under the slogan “Ten Stalinist punches against capitalism”. But although he criticised Medvedev, he didn’t touch Putin. The populist leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), Vladimir Zhirinovsky, another political dinosaur, actively endorses Putin’s foreign policy.

If there is discontent among voters, Putin is immune to it. On the eve of the elections, United Russia’s popularity slid to just 30 per cent of total respondents in one poll, though it scored 50 per cent among those who said they were definitely going to vote. Medvedev’s own approval rating fell to 48 per cent. His message to the elderly that state pensions wouldn’t increase, and his advice to teachers to get jobs in the private sector if they weren’t happy with their state salaries, might have had something to do with it. Yet Putin’s popularity remained consistently high, at 82 per cent, according to independent pollsters the Levada Centre.

Alexey Volkov, a 40-year-old business manager, says he voted for the Communists. “I voted against United Russia, the apparatchiks stifling the president,” he explains. “Putin, on the other hand, is the best ruler since Alexander III [Russia’s emperor at the end of the 19th century].”

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular and considered ineffective by the Russian people. Over the past 16 years, presidential power has expanded hugely. Since Russia adopted its new constitution in 1993, successive presidents have introduced legislation to stretch the office’s authority. In his first term as president, Putin acquired 219 new rights and duties, and as his successor Medvedev enjoyed an additional 114 responsibilities. These range from educational appointments to federal government decisions.

As predicted, United Russia topped the ballot with 54 per cent of the vote. Putin’s party claimed 343 of the 450 seats (up from 238 in 2011). The same four parties will form the Duma. The Yabloko and PARNAS parties, seen by voters as a token gesture of protest against the Kremlin, gained negligible support, with 2 per cent and 0.7 per cent, respectively.

It is ultimately Putin’s victory. In the eyes of the majority, he has restored Russia’s strength abroad, revived the defence industry and army, and reinvigorated the country with patriotism. The latter was accomplished via manipulation of the media, which has reinstated the West as the enemy and focused attention on foreign affairs at the expense of the social and economic agenda at home.

Still, with the low turnout, only 26 per cent of eligible Russians voted for Putin’s party. Though that was enough to tighten the president’s grip on the Duma, nationwide the elections paint a picture of a dejected Russia just beginning to feel discontent with the status quo. It is not yet enough to unseat Putin, but as the old Russian saying goes: a drop of water can cut through stone.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times