'The Message': The Movie About Islam That Sparked a Hostage Crisis in D.C.

Released in 1977, it was intended to honor Muhammad as much as this year's The Innocence of Muslims was intended to degrade him; but it provoked a violent backlash.

the message banner.pngA screenshot of the 1977 film The Message. (YouTube)

India's northernmost province, Jammu and Kashmir, was not the right place -- and September 14, 2012 was especially not the right time -- to be screening a film about the Prophet Muhammad. Nearby in Pakistan, protests over the controversial Innocence of Muslims had recently turned fatal, and demonstrators at the University of Kashmir carried placards that read "Obama, we are all Osama." Yet at a middle school in the Kupwara district -- where one-third of the population is illiterate and more than two-thirds are Muslim -- the Indian army went ahead with its screening anyway. The event instantly set off a riot.

Shouting first, then throwing stones, a contingent of Kupwara's residents, schoolteachers, and pupils misrecognized the movie as the devious and amateurish YouTube trailer that led to protests in Egypt. But after police arrested two and confiscated the Urdu-dubbed video, they discovered not the "Sam Bacile" production the locals had assumed -- soldiers were actually screening a three-hour, high-budget epic that earned an Academy Award nomination for best original score -- in 1977.

The Message (also released under the title Mohammad, Messenger of God) is now used in the military's hearts-and-minds campaign, intended for shoring up public relations in remote Muslim regions. That's a far cry from the big, late-1970s crowds that The Message was intended for, made on a budget of $17 million, according to its Syrian-American producer Moustapha Akkad .

"Being a Muslim myself who lived in the West," Akkad said, "I felt that it was my obligation, my duty, to tell the truth about Islam."

Akkad cast Anthony Quinn as Muhammad's uncle, Hamza, in the English version, and shot a separate version with Arabic-speaking actors. He gained support from Islamic scholars at Al-Azhar University and filmed exclusively in the Arab world -- efforts to appease detractors who accused him of commercially exploiting the Prophet's life. And Akkad even placed this slide, about 5 minutes into the movie, to conciliate Islamic audiences:

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So the case of misdirected aggression in Kupwara -- aimed at Innocence of Muslims but hitting The Message ­­-- reveals the two films' ironic parallel history. Though Akkad sympathized and practiced Islam -- making him a foil to Bacile, a.k.a. Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, one of the many monikers of the filmmaker who was recently jailed on November 7 -- his movie triggered a similar backlash. The Message provoked a bloody civilian protest 35 years ago that seems like Hollywood hyperbole today.

* * *

Washington, D.C., came to a standstill six weeks into the Carter administration when on March 9, 1977, Hamaas Abdul Khaalis and 11 other Hanafi Muslims drove a rented U-Haul from Maryland to the District of Columbia loaded with machetes, shotguns, and swords. By mid-afternoon they had seized control of the District Building, the Islamic Center, and the B'na B'rith Headquarters, shooting dead a police officer and local reporter in the process. Among the 149 hostages they seized were a future mayor -- Marion Barry, then a city councilman, who survived a shotgun wound to the chest -- and then-mayor Walter Washington, who was barricaded in his office.

Poorly remembered about the plot is what provoked it: the same film that sparked protests in India this year.

"We want the picture out of the country," Khaalis then declared. "Because it's a fairy tale, it's a joke. ... I'm Muslim and I'll die for my faith. It's a joke. It's misrepresenting the Muslim faith.

The 1977 Hanafi Siege dragged on for 39 hours, prompted Associated Press articles headlined "Moslem terrorists hijacking the capital," and would be considered the city's first major domestic-terrorism crisis. It's been commemorated as an artifact of District-security lore, staged decades before the 9/11 attacks.

After the Hanafi episode, President Carter criticized the crisis coverage in its aftermath for giving voice to extremists; he asked for "sober consideration" amongst journalists in future scenarios. United Nations ambassador Andrew Young was more blunt: "I wish there could be a law to restrict publication of information regarding violent crimes," he said days after the incident.

Burnley 2-300.pngHamaas Abdul Khaalis, the leader of the Hanafi Muslim Movement of America

Khaalis founded the Hanafi Muslim Movement of America in 1958, and recruited a group of middle-class blacks practicing moderate Islam to join. Though they never grew beyond a few thousand in number, the group received outsized attention for one member -- Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the NBA Hall-of-Famer -- who was a prominent contributor of seed money. Before establishing the Hanafis, Khaalis was a high-ranking member of the Nation of Islam, but left disillusioned and even tried, to no avail, to convince his close friend Malcolm X to leave as well. Khaalis evolved from a preacher of "peace and racial harmony" into a "fanatic bent on revenge," as Newsweek put it, when seven members of Khaalis's family were murdered in 1973 by a criminal enterprise known as the Black Mafia from Philadelphia -- allegedly over Khaalis' criticism of Nation of Islam's leader, Elijah Muhammad.

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Malcolm Burnley does story research for The Atlantic.

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