Last September, the YouTube video "Innocence of Muslims" sparked protests around the world. Around the same time, an airing of a very different film about the Islamic faith caused a small riot in Northern India. “The Message” is a multi-million-dollar epic about the life of Mohammad. It could not be more different than “Innocence of Muslims,” yet it’s the second time its been connected to violence. Bob speaks with the Atlantic's Malcolm Burnley, who wrote about the remarkable history of "The Message."
BOB GARFIELD: “Innocence of Muslims,” the YouTube video that sparked violent protests in the Muslim world last September is in the news again. After the deadly attack on the UN Mission in Benghazi, UN Ambassador Susan Rice suggested on TV that the inflammatory film had caused the attack. It appears now that deliberate terrorism, not the spontaneous outrage the video spawned elsewhere, was behind the Benghazi violence. And on Thursday, under pressure from Senate Republicans, Rice removed herself from consideration for Secretary of State.
Around the time as the attack in Benghazi, an airing of a very different film about the Islamic faith caused a small riot in northern India. “The Message” is a multimillion-dollar epic about the life of Mohammad, which debuted in the US in 1977. The film could not be more different than “Innocence of Muslims,” yet it's the second time it's been connected to violence. The message played a part in a bizarre little-remembered terrorism incident on US soil that now stands as an eerie foreshadowing for the riots that erupted 35 years later.
The movie's producer, Syrian-American Moustapha Akkadwas, himself a Muslim, envisioned the film as a sweeping epic. Western viewers were not impressed.
MALCOLM BURNLEY: Because they thought it was too dumbed down, they thought it was too sympathetic.
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The musical score, which was actually nominated for an Academy Award, was overly sympathetic towards Mohammad and his story.
MAN: In the name of God, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful, from Mohammad, the Messenger of God, greetings to him who is ….
MALCOLM BURNLEY: It was a pretty basic plot, pretty poorly acted [LAUGHS]. It’s nothing compared to “Lawrence of Arabia” or similar epics from that era.
BOB GARFIELD: Maybe not “Lawrence of Arabia” but quite the epic. The producer spent a lot of money, 19 million 1977 dollars to faithfully depict the roots of Islam.
MALCOLM BURNLEY: He wanted to spread the story of Mohammad to a Western audience and, respecting Islamic tradition, he chose not to portray Mohammad in voice or in image throughout the film.
MAN: Mohammad is generous, yes, he gives, he shares. But he is spreading dangerous ideas.
MAN: Dangerous ideas, that no man should starve, that the rich should not defraud the poor, the strong should not oppress the weak? Are these dangerous ideas?
BOB GARFIELD: And yet, for all his good intentions, this film became a bargaining chip in this terrorist incident in Washington, DC in ’77, when a group of Hanafi Muslims – that’s American-born converts to Islam – seized three buildings in DC, killed two people and took almost 150 others hostage. Tell about these Hanafis.
MALCOLM BURNLEY: We should start with their leader, and his name was Hamaas Abdul Khaalis, and in the early sixties he joined the Nation of Islam and actually rose through the ranks. He befriended Malcolm X. In the mid-sixties he broke with the Nation of Islam and formed the Hanafi Muslim Movement of America. They were based in Washington, DC. And in 1973 a hate crime is committed against Khaalis and several members of his family are murdered. And then four years later is when he storms and takes over three buildings in Washington.
Sharpshooters surrounded the buildings that the Hanafis took over. President Carter was briefed on the situation. Even the State Department brought in ambassadors from Muslim countries to try to pacify the Hanafis. For 40 hours the city was stopped.
BOB GARFIELD: And one of the most remarkable aspects of this episode, the takeover of the B'nai B'rith and the Islamic Center and the District Building is that the whole thing played out on the local news, Channel 9, in real time. And its anchorman, Max Robinson, was very much in the middle of this story.
DAN RATHER: The terrorists established a telephone dialogue with Robinson, who was the first to broadcast their demands.
MAX ROBINSON: Are you saying that you will know –
DAN RATHER: Among other things, that a new movie about the Prophet Mohammad be banned.
MAX ROBINSON: That once the film is removed from this country, once - you are asking that those responsible for the deaths or who killed your children be brought to the B'nai B'rith Building.
MALCOLM BURNLEY: They did not get the murderers to the District Building. However, “The Message” was stopped from premiering in New York on that same day.
BOB GARFIELD: And various governmental officials, including the Ambassador to the United Nations Andrew Young and I think President Carter himself publicly fretted over a press being so free that it gave so much oxygen to a terrorist incident.
MALCOLM BURNLEY: In a strange way, shades of President Obama and Susan Rice. Yeah, President Carter had to defend his UN Ambassador’s comments who said that he wanted a law to restrict the flow of information and he wanted the President not to be able to give a platform to these attackers.
BOB GARFIELD: Do you have any idea what it was in the message that infuriated the Hanafis? In particular, do you have any idea whether Khaalis had actually even seen the film?
MALCOLM BURNLEY: He was quoted as saying that he saw “The Message” as the inspiration for him to act. Similar to the rhetoric concerning “Innocence of Muslims” he just called the film denigrating towards Islam and Mohammad. By all accounts, he probably did not see the film, considering it was on the day of its premiere.
BOB GARFIELD: Do you think the people who rioted in Kashmir and elsewhere in northern India had any idea that “The Message” was not “Innocence of Muslims?”
MALCOLM BURNLEY: I'm sure they had no idea, and almost five minutes into the film or not even five minutes into the film there’s a slide that’s shown that says, “The image of Mohammad will not be shown in this movie.” And so, presumably this riot that occurred in India happened even before that five-minute mark in the film.
BOB GARFIELD: Akkad lost a fortune with the original production of “The Message” but he went on to do pretty well [LAUGHS] in Hollywood. He was the producer of what?
MALCOLM BURNLEY: The “Halloween” movies –
- starring Jamie Lee Curtis. And it’s just – it’s really, I think, I think symbolic in this whole story of mistaken intentions. Akkad tried so hard to make this large high budget epic and it largely flopped and inspired violence. And then his next movie was this low-budget slasher movie and it wound up grossing tens of millions of dollars and launching a franchise.
BOB GARFIELD: Malcolm, thank you very much.
MALCOLM BURNLEY: Thank you so much for having me. It’s great to share this history.
BOB GARFIELD: Malcolm Burnley wrote about “The Message” on Atlantic.com.
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BOB GARFIELD: That’s it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Jamie York, Alex Goldman, PJ Vogt, Sarah Abdurrahman, Chris Neary and Doug Anderson, with more help from Khrista Rypl and Annie Russell. And the show was edited - by Brooke. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineer this week was Ken Feldman.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Katya Rogers is our senior producer. Ellen Horne is WNYC’s senior director of National Programs. Bassist composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. You can listen to the program and find transcripts and read our fabulous blog at onthemedia.org. You can find us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter, and you can e-mail us at email@example.com. On the Media is produced by WNYC and distributed by NPR. I’m Brooke Gladstone.
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