An American Tragedy Diplomacy is a Dangerous Profession
Who created Anwar al Awlaki and Samir Khan, US citizens killed this week in Yemen? As the West marks 10 years of war, is it ready to face some home truths?
Independent film isn’t what it used to be.
Declining production costs and ever-proliferating distribution options have encouraged everyone from the U.S. Navy to fringe religious groups to dabble in filmmaking, with results that range from unsettling to explosive.
The latest example — The Innocence of Muslims, an incendiary piece of anti-Muslim bigotry that advertised its casting call in the pages of Backstage and shot scenes on a Paramount set — has inflamed tensions across the Islamic world and inspired a series of violent outbreaks, including an assault on a U.S. diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, Libya, that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens.
Would a pamphlet or a web posting have had the same effect? Or is there something about filmmaking that lends authority to an expression of stupidity that would otherwise be dismissed out of hand? The answer has something to do with the history of independent filmmaking, and the changes that have turned it upside down.
During the heyday of indie movies, roughly 1989 to 2002, renegade auteurs including Jim Jarmusch, Spike Lee, Steven Soderbergh, Kimberly Peirce and David O. Russell embraced the opportunity to work outside the studio system, creating arty, low-budget movies about characters and issues that had no place at Columbia Pictures and 20th Century Fox.
They enjoyed freedom, up to a point. And their budgets were low, at least by comparison to what the Steven Spielbergs and James Camerons of the world were spending. But even guerrilla filmmaking was expensive in the pre-digital era. “My generation, we didn’t go to film school to get a degree,” Spike Lee told me last month. “We went to film school to get the equipment.”
Moreover, most filmmakers in those days agreed that the primary purpose of these films was to tell great stories. If they made money, great, but if that really mattered to you you’d be working for a studio. If they raised awareness about a topic, swell, but if that were your primary purpose you’d be in Washington, not Hollywood. The culture of filmmaking — its view of storytelling as an inherently valuable, even virtuous act — shut out the most shameless propagandists and provocateurs. They weren’t invited into the club.
And suppose you somehow managed to raise enough money to make a film that had nothing to do with on-screen quality and everything to do with advancing some pet cause or tearing down some enemy, real or imagined. Who would show it? A legion of tastemakers guarded every distribution outlet, from festivals to art house cinemas to VHS rental chains. Sure, you could sell your movie at one of those disreputable video shops — right next to the imported European pornography — but how big of an audience could you hope to reach with that strategy?
Clearly, things have changed. If Hollywood used to be a club, now it’s more like a casino. At the studios, anyone with a recognizable “platform” — be it a book, a board game or a Twitter account — is encouraged to “monetize their brand” with a feature film. And in the indie wilds, all bets are off.
In many ways, the independent-film world is a scene of exciting innovation, as new voices gain access to audiences without having to contend with artificial barriers to entry. But there is a dark side, too.
Let’s say you’re the U.S. Navy. Recruitment is down, given that whole endless-wars-on-foreign-soil thing, and you could use a way to get young people excited about the armed forces again. Why not do an open call for filmmakers willing to build an action movie around the exploits of Navy SEALS, and release the resulting movie — Act of Valor — in theaters across the country? No one needs to know that they’re sitting through a feature-length recruitment film.
Or let’s say you’re a rabid anti-Muslim zealot who, for reasons that remain mysterious, wants to antagonize a sizable portion of the world’s population. You don’t need an agency. You don’t need a studio. Just put an ad in Backstage, hire up a crew and release your trailer on YouTube. The bars to production and distribution are so low today that literally anyone can do it.
Unfortunately, that’s not always apparent to viewers. As laughable as the production values on The Innocence of Muslims may seem, it’s reasonable to expect that those who saw the trailer’s Arabic version did not immediately conclude that it had been made by a handful of charlatans. In the popular imagination, if not in reality, anyone can write a blog post or shoot a cell phone video, but only Hollywood, Bollywood and a select few others can make a movie. To get a movie made, you need backers, producers, marketers, advocates of every description. The mere existence of a film seems to suggest that it has been endorsed by a lot of people — people with money, people with connections, people with taste.
We don’t live in that world anymore, but ideas don’t always move as quickly as reality. In the meantime, we should all pay closer attention to who’s projecting their ideas onto our screens — and why.
What then went wrong? Something snapped in Samir after 9/11. The witch hunt and overwhelming suspicion that many Muslims faced in the wake of attacks hadn’t been easy for the best of integrated communities. It was clearly a life-changing experience for an impressionable teenager. The US wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and all that that went on out there in the name of promoting democracy and fighting terror proved too much for the young man who moved to America when he was 7.
Diplomacy is a Dangerous Profession
THERE is a black wall in a State Department lobby inscribed with the names of those who died while serving overseas. Every time I passed that wall after Al Qaeda blew up two American Embassies in East Africa in 1998, I thought of the 12 American and 32 Kenyan friends and colleagues who died on my watch as ambassador. I thought of my own journey that day down flights of stairs in the building next door to the embassy, after having been knocked out by the blast, of the people who risked their lives to save others, and of how we carried on under horrendous circumstances.
Now every time I pass the black marble wall, I will think of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and his colleagues who died after an attack on our consulate in Benghazi, Libya, this week.
Diplomats don’t often make headlines until something horrible happens. Even then, it is policy and politics that get the attention. We had barely learned of the attack before talking heads began to expound on Middle East policies and the words administration officials used, or should have used, to uphold our national dignity.
Where were the conversations about the diplomats who were actually carrying out those policies in faraway, often dangerous places, the people who take care of us despite the hardship and risk? Imagine what it must have been like trying to escape the raging fire in the Benghazi consulate or enduring hours of assault in the nearby annex waiting for relief from the Libyan government.
Diplomacy is a dangerous profession. You cannot exert influence by whispering in diplomatic code to your government counterparts behind closed doors. You do not spread American values — especially in places where passions are high, governments fragile and guns plentiful — by remote control from Washington. You have to get out from behind the walls and engage with people. We know this can put us in harm’s way; our people in the Benghazi consulate knew it. And they did their jobs anyway.
That is because, hokey as it sounds, the people who represent us overseas really do believe they can make a difference. They confront violent behavior and strong passions with American leadership, smart power and peaceful means.
We must make that work safer. The reasons for violence change with time and place but the human effects are the same. For two years before we were blown up in Nairobi, Kenya, my team and I fought (“nagged” was the word State Department colleagues used) to have security threats and vulnerabilities addressed. We were too close to the street, an easy target. Washington’s assessment was that things were O.K. Anyway, I was told, there was no money for a more secure embassy. What was Washington’s assessment of our consulate in Benghazi? We may not like the image of American diplomats working out of fortified boxes, but we cannot let them work in buildings that can be overrun by attackers. This is a lesson our government still hasn’t learned since 1979 in Tehran.
If the Benghazi tragedy traces the same journey we made from the rubble in Nairobi, heartfelt pronouncements will be made; the dead will be given due homage and then they will be buried. The press will alight on other stories.
A Congressionally mandated accountability review board will determine what happened and what needs to be done to avoid such tragedies in the future. Easy fixes — changes to emergency action plans, minor security upgrades — will be made; expensive and hard ones will not.
The Foreign Service is short on people, and those people are rushed into the field short on training. We build concrete fortresses when we have to, but we don’t invest in the mobile communications and security technology that would protect diplomats when they leave the embassy, as they must. What kinds of technology, systems, training and deployment do we need to get results through diplomacy in the 21st century?
These are the difficult questions that will remain unanswered, while diplomats disappear from public view once again. Until the next time someone dies — then we see the same sorry response all over again.
But we can give meaning to this tragedy. What if President Obama and Mitt Romney exercised true leadership by explaining to Americans, including the families and friends of those who died in Benghazi, what diplomacy is all about? Why using words and deeds for peace is as important as using weapons. Why we value our diplomats and what we will do to make their jobs easier, if we cannot guarantee their absolute security.
It is a stretch, I know. Far easier to add some more concrete, declare our responsibilities to diplomats complete and move back to the fun stuff of making and debating policy, most of it domestic. The black wall will continue to accumulate names, diplomats will continue to represent our country on the cheap and nothing much will change. Like that scenario? If not, start demanding leadership. That is what Chris Stevens and his team were providing. Let’s think about them and reciprocate.
The entire world of Islam is all set to observe the birthday of Prophet Muhammad (Peace and Blessings Be Upon Him) on 12th Rabee al Awwal (February 5). He introduced Islam, which is the culmination of the core teachings, values and essence of all the 1,24,000 prophets sent by Allah from time to time in different lands. The Prophet of Islam’s wise sayings, glorious actions and attitudes are everlasting guidelines for mankind towards virtue and righteousness. He is the supreme role model in every aspect of their lives.
Allah the Exalted says in the Glorious Quran “O Prophet! Surely We have sent you as a witness, and as a bearer of good news and as a warner, And as one inviting to Allah by His permission, and as a light-giving torch. And give to the believers the good news that they shall have a great grace from Allah. And be not compliant to the unbelievers and the hypocrites. Disregard their annoying talk, and put thy trust in Allah. Allah is sufficient as a Protector”. (33:45-48).
The Prophet (pbuh) preached an all-encompassing way of life (Deen), founded a state, built a nation, laid down a moral code, initiated countless social and political reforms, established a dynamic and powerful society to practice and represent Islamic teachings, and completely revolutionised the worlds of human thought and action for all times to come.
Over the centuries, many eminent non-Muslim scholars have rated Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) most highly and have given due recognition to his greatness.
Mahatma Gandhi, speaking on the character of the Prophet (PBUH) said: “I wanted to know the best of one who holds today’s undisputed sway over the hearts of millions of mankind. I became more than convinced that it was not the sword that won a place for Islam in those days in the scheme of life. It was the rigid simplicity, the utter self-effacement of the Prophet (PBUH), the scrupulous regard for his pledges, his intense devotion to this friends and followers, his intrepidity, his fearlessness, his absolute trust in God and in his own mission. These and not the sword carried everything before them and surmounted every obstacle. When I closed the 2nd volume (of the Prophet’s biography), I was sorry there was not more for me to read of the great life.” (Young India, 1924).
Sir George Bernard Shaw writes in his book The Genuine Islam, Singapore, Vol 1, No 8, 1936): “I have always held the religion of Muhammad (PBUH) in high estimation because of its wonderful vitality. It is the only religion, which appears to me to possess that assimilating capacity to the changing phase of existence, which can make itself appeal to every age. I have studied him — the wonderful man and in my opinion far from being an anti-Christ, he must be called the Saviour of Humanity.
“If a man like him were to alive today he would succeed in solving its problems in a way that would bring it the much needed peace and happiness: I have prophesied about the faith of Muhammad (PBUH) that it would be acceptable to the Europe of tomorrow as it is beginning to be acceptable to the Europe of today.”
Sarojini Naidu, the famous poetess of India, says: “It was the first religion that preached and practiced democracy; for, in the mosque, when the call for prayer is sounded and worshippers are gathered together, the democracy of Islam is embodied five times a day when the peasant and king kneel side by side and proclaim: ‘God Alone is Great’. I have been struck over and over again by this indivisible unity of Islam that makes man instinctively a brother.” (S Naidu, Ideals of Islam, vide Speeches & Writings, Madras, 1918, p 169).
The advent of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) marked the end of ignorance and darkness and the coming of the age of enlightenment, salvation and hope for mankind. According to R V C Bodley in The Messenger: The Life of Mohammed, there are more professing Christians in the world than professing Muslims, but there are more practising Muslims in the world than any other group practising their faith.
Thomas Carlyle was simply amazed as to how one man, single-handedly, could weld warring tribes and wandering Bedouins into a most powerful and civilised nation in less than two decades.
Alphonse of Lamartine, in his well-known work, Histoire de la Turquie, observes: “If greatness of purpose, smallness of means, and astounding results are the three criteria of human genius, who could dare to compare any great man in modern history with Muhammad (PBUH)? The most famous men created arms, laws and empires only. They founded, if anything at all, no more than material powers which often crumbled away before their eyes. This man moved not only armies, legislations, empires, peoples and dynasties, but millions of men in one-third of the then inhabited world; and more than that, he moved the altars, the gods, the religions, the ideas, the beliefs and the souls.
“On the basis of a Book, every letter of which has become law, he created a spiritual nationality which blended together peoples of every tongue and of every race. Philosopher, orator, apostle, legislator, warrior, conqueror of ideas, restorer of rational beliefs, a founder of twenty terrestrial empires and one spiritual empire. Of all standards by which human greatness can be measured, we may well ask… is there any man greater than Muhammed (PBUH)?”
Michael H Hart, a Christian American, astronomer, mathematician, lawyer, chess master and scientist, in his 572-page book The 100: A Ranking of the Most Influential Persons in History (New York, 1978, p 33), has ranked the great men in history with respect to their influence on human history. For the second time he ranked the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) as the most influential man in the human history.
In the introduction Michael H Hart writes: “Muhammad (PBUH) had a much greater personal influence on the formulation of the Muslim religion than Jesus had on the formulation of the Christian religion”. Michael, widely known as a historian, mathematician and astronomer, searched history, seeking for men who had the greatest influence on mankind. He put Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) as the No 1, Jesus No 3 and Moses No 40.
Historian, John William Draper in his well-known work, A History of the Intellectual Development of Europe, observes: “Four years after the death of Justinian, 569 AD, was born at Mecca, in Arabia, the man who, of all men, has exercised the greatest influence upon the human race.”
Sir William Muir, the well-known British historian, in his Life of Mohammed says: “Our authorities, all agree in ascribing to the youth of Muhammad (PBUH) a modesty of deportment and purity of manners rare among the people of Mecca. The fair character and honourable bearing of the unobtrusive youth won the approbation of his fellow-citizens; and he received the title, by common consent, of Al-Ameen, the Trustworthy.”
James Michener in his well-known work, Islam The Misunderstood Religion writes: “Orphaned at birth, he was always particularly solicitous of the poor and the needy, the widow and the orphan, the slave and the downtrodden. At 20 he was already a successful businessman, and soon became director of camel caravans for a wealthy widow. When he reached 25, his employer lady Khatija, recognising his merit, proposed marriage. Even though she was 15 years older, he married her, and as long as she lived remained a devoted husband.
“Forced now to fight in defence of the freedom of conscience which he preached, he became an accomplished military leader, Although he repeatedly went into battle outnumbered and out speared as much as five to one, he won some spectacular victories.”
Dr Marcus Dods, in his work, Mohammad, Buddah and Christ writes: “Certainly he had two of the most important characteristics of the prophetic order. He saw truth about God which his fellowmen did not see, and he had an irresistible inward impulse to publicise this truth.”
John Davenport in his well-known work, An Apology for Mohammad and the Koran, admits the honesty and sincerity behind Muhammad’s (PBUH) claim of being an apostle of God, when he says: “It is strongly corroborative of Muhammad’s (PBUH) sincerity that the earliest converts of Islam were his bosom friends and the people of his household, who all intimately acquainted with his private life, could not fail to have detected those discrepancies which more or less invariably exist between the pretensions of the hypocritical deceiver and his actions at home.”
Again John Davenport states: “With all that simplicity which is so natural to a great mind, he performed the humblest offices whose homeliness it would be idle to conceal with pompous diction; even while Lord of Arabia, he mended his own shoes and coarse woollen garments, milked the ewes, swept the hearth, and kindled the fire. Dates and water were his usual fare and milk and honey his luxuries. When he travelled he divided his morsel with the servant. The sincerity of his exhortations to benevolence was justified at his death by the exhausted state of his coffers.”
W Montgomery Watt writes in his Mohammad at Makkah: “His readiness to undergo persecution for his beliefs, the high moral character of the men who believed in him and looked up to him as leader, and the greatness of his ultimate achievement — all argue his fundamental integrity. To suppose Muhammad (PBUH) as imposter raises more problems than it solves. Moreover, none of the great figures of history is so poorly appreciated in the West as Muhammad (PBUH).
“Thus, not merely must we credit Muhammad (PBUH) with essential honesty and integrity of purpose, if we are to understand him at all: if we are to correct the errors we have inherited from the past.”
Bosworth Smith, a well-known writer, in his well-known book Mohammad and Mohammadanism, adds: “Head of the State as well as of the Church, he was Caesar and Pope in one; but he was Pope without Pope’s pretensions, Caesar without the legion of Caesar. Without a standing army, without a bodyguard, without a palace, without a fixed revenue, if ever any man had the right to say that he ruled by the right divine, it was Muhammad (PBUH), for he had all the power without its instructions and without its supports.”
Stanley Lane-Poole, in his work The Speeches and Table Talk of the Prophet Mohammad says: “The day of Muhammad’s (PBUH) greatest triumph over his enemies was also the day of his grandest victory over himself. He freely forgave the Quraish all the years of sorrow and cruel scorn in which they had afflicted him and gave an amnesty to the whole population of Mecca. Four criminals whom justice condemned made up Muhammad’s (PBUH) proscription list, when he entered as a conqueror to the city of his bitterest enemies.
“The army followed his example, and entered quietly and peacefully; no house was robbed, no women insulted. One thing alone suffered destruction: Going to the Kaaba, Muhammad (PBUH) stood before each of the 360 idols, and pointed to it with his staff, saying, ‘Truth has come and falsehood has fled away!’ and at these words his attendants hewed them down, and all the idols and household gods of Mecca and round about were destroyed. It was thus Muhammad (PBUH) entered again his native city, through all the annals of conquest there is no triumphant entry comparable to this one.”
Dr Annie Besant in her book The Life and Teachings of Muhammad Madras, 1932, p 4 says: “It is impossible for anyone who studies the life and character of the great Prophet of Arabia, who knows how he taught and how he lived, to feel anything but reverence for that mighty Prophet, one of the great messengers of the Supreme. And although in what I put to you I shall say many things which may be familiar to many, yet I myself feel whenever I re-read them, a new way of admiration, a new sense of reverence for that mighty Arabian teacher.”
According to celebrated South African preacher Ahmad Deedat, “the triumph of Islam has already started and is gaining hold over all ideologies. Though not in the name of Islam, but in the name of reformation and amendments, the laws of Islam are being introduced in many parts of the world”. For example, the universal brotherhood of man, the abolition of the caste system and untouchability, the right of women to inherit property, widow remarriage, opening the places of worship to all including women, prohibition of all intoxicants, non-interest banking, disregard for idol worship, resistance to oppression, and above all the Islamic concept of the Unity of God and mankind are sweeping the world.
Islam cultivates a culture that develops and deepens a sense of belongingness, togetherness and unity. Slowly but surely, people around the world are realising the importance of Islamic vision of universal brotherhood and are rallying together to link and support one another.
There are other attractions too. Islam has created the world’s largest community of teetotallers.
On the whole, no system can show the Muslim world a candle where sobriety is concerned; where charity is concerned; where austerity is concerned; where unity and brotherhood is concerned; and where God-consciousness or seeking refuge with the Creator in terms of prayers, patience, charity and fasting is concerned.
A look at the UN studies shows that the rate of crime, social diseases and afflictions such as Aids, STDs, unwed teenage pregnancy, teenage motherhood, single parenting and rape are almost non-existent or the lowest in Muslim countries.
The reason is not far to seek. Islam is a complete way of life, governing dress, economics, business, eithics, justice punishment, politics, marriage and inheritance, because it carries within itself the essence of the teachings of all prophets from Adam to Jesus and the last and final Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon all of them).