Mohammed receiving his first revelation from the angel Gabriel. From Jami’ al-Tawarikh, (The Universal History), by Rashid al-Din, 1307
It may be ironic, but it is not entirely surprising that the YouTube clip of what appears to be a badly made film satirizing the Prophet Muhammad appeared, causing mayhem and destruction—coinciding with the death of US ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens—in the same week of September that the novelist Salman Rushdie published Joseph Anton. The memoir recounts Rushdie’s life as a “celebrity victim” after Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, issued a fatwa calling for his death for offending Islam in his novel The Satanic Verses. Not to be outgunned by the late Ayatollah, the Pakistani railroad minister Ghulam Ahmad Bilour has now personally offered a $100,000 reward to anyone who murders the maker of Innocence of Muslims, the crude new film.
The Pakistani minister’s intended victim appears to be Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, an Egyptian-American Christian who used the alias Sam Bacile when producing the film, which in the YouTube clip shows a young, long-haired Muhammad indulging in oral sex with a Bedouin woman in her tent. Since Nakoula had received a number of death threats, newspaper pictures and television shots showed him shrouded and under heavy guard as he was bundled into a police vehicle when he was arrested by the Los Angeles police for violating the terms of his probation on bank fraud charges dating from 2010. The parallels with Rushdie’s disappearance from public view after Khomeini issued his notorious fatwa on St. Valentine’s Day, 1989, were somewhat uncanny.
Invited to sympathize with Nakoula’s predicament, Rushdie made a crucial distinction. “I think he’s done something malicious, and that’s a very different thing from writing a serious novel,” he said on CNN’s Today show. “He’s clearly set out to provoke, and he’s obviously unleashed a much bigger reaction than he hoped for…. He set out to create a response, and he got it in spades.”
However, the responses to both Rushdie’s book and Nakoula’s film are evidently motivated in part by the same issue: the belief, now dominant among Islamists and even some non-political Muslims, that (contrary to numerous precedents in Islamic art history) the image of the Prophet must always be aniconic, and that representations of him—let alone inflammatory caricatures—are absolutely forbidden.