A naïve portrait of the Virgin Mary studded with beaded elephant dung. A portrait of Jesus Christ encased in urine. A video of ants crawling over a crucifix. All these artistic works have created controversy over the past decade in the United States. Each of them yielded a predictable reaction from politicians and conservative religious leaders, but perhaps the most interesting came from Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League of America, quoted in The New York Times: “It would jump out at people if they had ants crawling all over the body of Muhammad. Except they wouldn’t do it, of course, for obvious reasons.”
As the reaction to an anti-Islam film produced in the US, the depiction of Muhammad in a French satirical weekly, and countless similar events proved, the reasons are obvious. In some ways the issue serves as a mirror to people’s beliefs: atheists blame the nature of religion, some Christians blame the nature of Islam, while others blamed the positioning of Islam as the enemy of the West.
Personally, I believe this issue is one of shock: how do people react to shocking material? In the majority of cases, shock is expected and applauded. In viewing Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ, we undergo a contract with the artist – Serrano chooses a fairly soft target (whoever heard of Christians storming an embassy and murdering civilians over a depiction of their prophet?) and we comment on how challenging the work is, how it makes us think and how it challenges the Judeo-Christian orientation of our society.
I make no claims that Innocence of Muslims is art, but this is how people are reacting to it. By viewing it and becoming outraged or shocked (or by not viewing it but still being shocked), people have signed a contract with the film’s creators, and the message will profligate – this is art.
A similar case today is the claimed prevalence of trolls on the Internet, in particular on Twitter. Despite Twitter being used by less than 1% of the Australian population, various media outlets have signed the contract with the trolls, by reproducing poisonous tweets on newspaper pages – reaching 86% of Australians (according to a Newspaper Works survey). Perhaps it is an unfortunate fact of human nature that people feel good when they are shocked.
In some ways, Innocence of Muslims is restoring the balance. As a Christian, I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling a little upset when people share blatantly anti-Christian content over social media without any complaints from others. However, I do not feel the need to engage in violence or chest beating. Perhaps the best way to achieve tolerance for my beliefs is simply to practise them. Christianity teaches us to “turn the other cheek” whereas Allah says in the Qur’an, “my mercy overpowers my wrath”.
Solving shock is easy – ignore the shock. I cannot imagine French satirical magazines are particularly popular in the Middle East or even Australia. Perhaps most importantly – don’t pass on the shock. I feel people gain pleasure from referring friends to shocking things (Senator Cory Bernardi’s commentary on bestiality was a recent Facebook favourite). All this does is feed the trolls.