Muslims Rage Against Offending Filmmakers

So much for the "Arab Spring."

It was a bad week for filmmakers’ freedom of expression, or for the tender sensibilities of Islamic fundamentalists, depending on your point of view. The television airing of a “blasphemous” film in Tunisia sent hundreds of offended Tunisians on a rampage. An Iranian actress was sentenced to jail and ninety lashes for appearing in a film deemed critical of the Iranian regime. And Bollywood filmmakers were ordered to either change the name of a film that “hurt Muslim feelings” or face thousands of angry demonstrators across Mumbai.

“Three hundred people attacked our offices and tried to set fire to them,” said Nebil Karoui, chairman of Tunisian television station Nessma, after the station received death threats in the wake of Friday night's broadcast of the film Persepolis. “There were messages posted on Facebook calling for Nessma to be torched and our journalists to be killed.”

Persepolis, writer/director Marjane Satrapi's adaptation of her graphic novels about growing up during Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution, is critical of the fundamentalist regime and contains a scene showing a character representing Allah, which is of course blasphemous in Islam. The film won the jury prize at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival.

Worshippers poured out of al-Fatah mosque in downtown Tunis in the afternoon and began protesting after the imam preached against Persepolis, calling it a “serious attack on the religious beliefs of Muslims.” Tunisian police had to resort to tear gas to disperse thousands of protesters; fifty demonstrators who tried to attack the station were arrested.

In the wake of this and other protests in the cities of Sousse, Monastir, Sidi Bouzid and Beja, the government called not for calm and restraint, but for “respect for sacred things” – essentially faulting the station for having the temerity to broadcast Persepolis despite the pain it could cause to hair-trigger Muslim sentiments.

Despite apologizing for airing the movie, station owner Karoui’s home was attacked at night by around a hundred people hurling firebombs. He wasn’t home at the time, but his wife and children were forced to flee out the back, and a housemaid was attacked and later hospitalized.

So much for the flowering of democracy and freedom after Tunisia’s Arab Spring. In Tehran, where the 2009 Green Revolution might have led to true democracy and freedom if the Obama administration had actively facilitated it, actress Marzieh Vafamehr was sentenced last week to a year in prison and ninety lashes for her role in My Tehran for Sale, a film ironically about a theater actress whose work is banned by the authorities, and who is then forced to “go underground” to secretly express her art. Ultimately, she plots her escape from Iran. The film shows subversive footage of Iranian “rave”-style parties, and in some scenes Vafamehr, who is married to an Iranian film director, is shown without a hijab and with a shaved head.

(See the trailer for My Tehran for Sale here.)

Ninety lashes. Blogger Charity Hume writes that “in order to grasp the nature of the punishment currently sanctioned by Iran’s government,” she Googled “flogging in Iran” and described what she saw:

Dozens of photographs came up. The pictures show flayed flesh, raw skin, and the mutilated backs and legs of human beings. Because the sentence is frequently carried out in public, many of the pictures depict a ring of spectators. Here… are the tribesmen who hold down the woman as she is flayed, here are the priests and imams who have ordered the scourging. This ring of spectators who silently witness and therefore sanction the punishment have both civil and religious authority to enact this sentence with the full blessing of their religion and their legal code.

Iran also arrested six independent filmmakers last month on charges of collaborating with the BBC and painting “a black picture of Iran and Iranians.” This oppression of filmmakers critical of the Islamic fundamentalist nation is in stark contrast to the regime’s welcome offered to Western apologist filmmakers like Oliver Stone’s son Sean, who has defended the regime’s  madman president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and said that he is eager to make films based in Iranian history and culture.

Meanwhile in India, which boasts the wildly prolific and lucrative Bollywood film industry, the movie Azaan has found itself embroiled in controversy after a Muslim leader petitioned the Bombay High Court. Dubbed one of Bollywood’s most expensive movies ever, the action thriller centers on an undercover Army officer out to thwart a (non-Muslim) terrorist plot. It appears that the film's name (“azaan” refers to the Muslim call to prayer) “hurts Muslim sentiments,” especially when associated with terrorism, and led a Mumbai mufti to issue a fatwa declaring that no film can be named “azaan.”

Farookh Ghosi, the vice-president of Mumbai’s largely Muslim-supported socialist Samajwadi Party, announced that

[f]ollowing the fatwa, I have filed a writ petition in the high court seeking the court's directions to file an FIR [first information report] against the movie producers, director and actors for abusing and exploiting the holy name of “azaan” for commercial gains, which has hurt Muslim sentiments.

Ghosi also demanded a stay on the global release of the film, scheduled to be released Friday, and a ban on the movie until the producers change the title. He threatened:

If the state government fails to respond within the next 24 hours, over 10,000 Muslims along with muftis and maulanas [respected Muslim leaders] shall stage demonstrations after the Friday afternoon namaaz [prayers] all over Mumbai.

Considering how the post-prayer demonstrations against Persepolis went in Tunisia, with a mere few hundred protesters, the threat that 10,000 Muslims whose sentiments have been hurt might rage against theaters and the filmmakers throughout Mumbai is one to be taken very seriously indeed – and yet one to be combated if freedom of expression is to prevail over fundamentalist oppression.