Justin Bieber was discovered after performing cover songs on YouTube. Adam Sandler has plucked short films from the video sharing service in hopes of producing feature versions. YouTube stars like Jenna Marbles and Ray William Johnson have made careers staying put on the site, churning out video blogs and turning a profit. Playing host to short films, comedy sketches, Presidential debates, live-streaming concerts, and anything and everything that can be shot, edited, and uploaded to the web, YouTube has only become increasingly more important since its debut in 2005. And like all brilliant, constantly evolving innovation, YouTube is susceptible to the darkest minds in the world, capable of spinning it for whatever purposes they see fit.
In early July of this year, trailers for a no-budget, anti-Islam film made their way online. The first glimpses of Innocence of Muslims, directed by "Sam Bacile" and "Alan Roberts" (names now known to be pseudonyms), barely made a blip. But when clips were aired on Egyptian television on Sept. 8, 2012, fury immediately erupted. Innocence of Muslims goes right for the throat of Islamic beliefs, portraying the prophet Muhammad (a figure forbidden by Islamic traditions to be depicted visually) as a bloodthirsty killer, sexual deviant, and generally crass human being. As word of the vicious YouTube video spread, so did the anti-American sentiment. On Sept. 11, the U.S. embassy in Cairo, Egypt, and the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, were attacked, resulting in the deaths of locals and U.S. citizens. The protests haven't settled — today, the U.S. consulate in Cennai, India resulting in over 25 injuries.
This isn't the first time a creative endeavor has sparked controversy in Islamic culture. In 2004, director Theo van Gogh directed a short film entitled Submission, an English translation of the word "Islam." The film depicted naked women covered in text from the Qur'an, kneeling and telling their stories of physical abuse. Four months after the film's release, Van Gogh was murdered while biking near his home in the Netherlands. In 2005, a Danish newspaper took heat after publishing editorial cartoons depicting Muhammad. Three years of constant death threats to the cartoonists eventually resulted in the incarceration of three men plotting an assassination.
Even the American mainstream has dared to push the button. Following the Danish cartoon controversy, Matt Stone and Trey Parker animated Muhammad into an episode of South Park. In the end, Comedy Central blurred out the cartoon prophet in order to avoid sparking any potential violence. Unhappy with Comedy Central's decision to censor their satire, Parker and Stone followed up their stripped down episode with one depicting George W. Bush and Jesus relieving themselves on the American flag.
We have freedom of speech in the United States, and, in turn, YouTube. Anyone can make a film with any message they please. While they may be in conflict with popular opinion, as a population, we should happy they can do so. The goal of Innocence of Muslims is overt: condemn Islam. But even if its directors duped unknowing actors into participating in the film, even if its tactics are boorish and hate-filled, the film itself didn't commit any lawful crimes. Innocence of Muslims is still an act of free expression. In turn, those in opposition to the film have the right to critique and condemn. And in this case, they probably should.
There's no way to regulate YouTube that's not censorship. People have tried in ways that have been successfully held off; the "Stop Online Piracy Act" hoped to reduce online piracy by having the government control copyrighted materials and search engine results, and potentially have the ability to block websites. The effects would trickle down: Imagine a world without mash-ups and viral videos. They wouldn't be possible.
There was no way to prevent the creators of Innocence of Muslims from posting their video on YouTube. However violent the world becomes in the wake of the incident, no one would want it any other way. Censorship is death — artists across the world share that value. The one thing that can be done is raise awareness of what power YouTube has. Each day, thousands of videos are posted on the site, some intricately shot productions, some rants produced on a laptop's built-in camera. But any video has the potential to go "viral." It's easy to forget 30-second glimpses into another person's life could be seen by millions of people (sorry, kid-who-was-way-too-drugged-up-at-the-dentists or kid-who-was-really-really-sad-after-Odd-Life-of-Timothy-Green). Innocence of Muslims was intended to stand out and perpetuate a message, but any video could have done it. Entertainment doesn't end at the movie theater or living room TV — people are always watching and reacting.
Innocence of Muslims riled up Islamic people around the world after it blew up on the Internet. Thanks to the Wild West environment of YouTube, a film with a positive message has the same opportunity.
Follow Matt Patches on Twitter @misterpatches
[Photo Credit: Sam Bacile; APAimages/Rex/Rex USA]