The avalanche of anonymous and unaccountable campaign cash that is currently marinating our nation’s politics this election cycle can be likened to the tactics of “Sam Bacile,” the pseudonym for the producer of the film “The Innocence of Muslims” that set ablaze parts of the Islamic world. The destruction that “Sam Bacile’s” little Youtube movie caused could pale in comparison to the potential damage that outside groups, hiding behind the veil of nonprofit 501(c)(4) organizations, could do to American politics.
We’ve been told that “Sam Bacile” (identified as a Coptic Christian, Nakoula Basseley Nakoula) and his co-producers were merely exercising their right to free speech, which they surely did. But they also chose to remain anonymous not only for self-protection but because they fabricated a non-existent Jewish conspiracy (a practice we should never take lightly) just to stir up the pot.
This lurid little film caused a lot of mayhem in the Middle East and beyond. The Americans killed in Benghazi might still be alive today had it not been for the provocative smear of the Islamic religion intentionally designed to cause maximum consternation.
Not since “The Last Temptation of Christ” did a film about an ancient prophet cause so much ill will. Back then the Campus Crusade for Christ founder, Bill Bright, offered to pay Universal for the prints of the movie so he could burn them. Such overreactions point to the downside of religious belief and there have been denunciations of opportunistic Muslim leaders using the “Sam Bacile” production as a vehicle to rile up their base and push aside rivals.
However, analysts subscribing to these views criticizing Muslim politicians rarely turn their finely honed lasers back onto American society. At this moment Ralph Reed (who joins the ranks of other Bush-era Republicans who should be ashamed to show his face in public but now is apparently fully rehabilitated) oversees a vast $12 million get-out-the-vote project for conservative evangelical Christians. He’s using deceptive surveys and religious conviction to get his base out for Romney-Ryan in the swing states. For decades right-wing Christian operators like Reed, Pat Robertson, and others have enraged their flocks for political gain. Their use of gays and abortion, “blasphemous” movies and entertainers, and other hot-button cultural issues to enhance their political clout is blandly accepted as “business as usual.”
Bill Maher and Sam Harris and other atheists argue that religion is a particularly vile form of magical thinking that leads people to do all sorts of stupid things. Granted. But they save their harshest criticisms for Islam claiming the Koranic scriptures themselves and not the history and social conditions of those parts of the world are responsible for the rise of the “irrational” impulse to hate “the West.” This broad-stroke assertion isn’t true. A quick scan of Deuteronomy should put this idea to rest.
We must engage the world that exists, not the one we’d like to imagine (as the neocons should have learned). And in the Islamic world, like anywhere else, there are opportunistic politicians eager to exploit slights to their religion to enhance their power. Fatwas are indeed the craziest religious decrees ever devised, but might the targeted assassinations of “militants” by drones be seen as a kind of secular “fatwa?” Contrary to the views of Maher, Harris, and others the Muslim religion is not any more inherently “violent” than any other. Their riffs are entertaining and correct to ridicule fanaticism, but they ignore the more thorny questions relating to the tortured history the Islamic world has had with “the West.”
It’s not surprising that anti-imperialist critiques would take on an Islamic inflection in these deeply religious societies. It doesn’t mean they’re “backward” or “inherently violent”; those “Orientalist” notions are outdated and dangerous. Large swathes of the world are tinderboxes awaiting the next spark to erupt into flames. “Sam Bacile” and his soul mates knew exactly what they were doing. We should try to show a little compassion and understanding with people in that part of the world where the United States has an overwhelming military and economic presence and realize that they may have legitimate grievances and good reason to be a tad bit upset with “the West.”
What if wealthy enemies of the United States pour money into front groups backing politicians they see as most likely to spark another war, or follow the old tactic of “my enemy’s enemy is my friend?” Having shadowy billionaires, unidentified corporations, and mysterious sovereign wealth and hedge funds financing our politics can’t be a good thing. If unnamed filmmakers can cause so much damage with one little provocation, think of the potential harm anonymous donors to 501(c)(4)s financing American political campaigns can cause.
Where are the American “nationalists” who fear “black helicopters” and ceding American sovereignty? Having a cash-and-carry political system where foreign and domestic investors with nefarious aims like that of “Sam Bacile” can wreak havoc from behind the shield of anonymity is the worst gift the Republican Supreme Court ever gave the country. How many other “Sam Baciles” are out there running their own anonymous 501(c)(4)s seeking to influence American politics in new and detrimental ways? Or creating fake conspiracies? Or aiming to rile up groups whose animus could serve their political ends?