'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.

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A 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.

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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.

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Hamaas 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.

Witnesses to Khaalis' Washington siege say The Message nudged him toward vigilantism. One hostage would later recount how Khaalis coordinated his attack to coincide with the movie's premiere: "[Khaalis] said he had been planning how and when to respond and waited for guidance...word of the showing of the motion picture." When Khaalis spoke to negotiators by phone from within the B'na B'rith building, he had two main demands: First, that the imprisoned murderers of his family be released and brought to him from jail. Second, that a sacrilegious movie be banished from theaters.

"First thing I want the killers of my babies . . . I say we want them right here. I want to see how tough they are. I want the one who killed Malcolm [X] too ... You killed my babies and shot my women ... we are going to kill foreign Muslims at the Islamic Center [and] create an international incident."

Police did not heed his first request, but accepted the second. That afternoon, The Message was frozen mid-reel at New York screenings, postponing its premiere. Akkad, the film's producer, told The Washington Post in an interview during the two-day siege, "I am willing to show this movie to any Moslem and if they don't like it, I am willing to burn it. If there is any offense, I promise I will burn it."

Many would later question whether the Hanafis had actually seen The Message, not only because public screenings had just begun, but because the movie seemed blatantly non-confrontational. It began with an opening interlude just before the disarming slide shown above.

The interlude starts with a white-turbaned actor, playing the part of the Prophet Muhammad's scroll carrier, uttering the first words.

"In the name of God, the most gracious, the most merciful ... accept Islam for your salvation."

Then the Emperor of Byzantium Heraclius retorts from underneath a purple jeweled crown.

"Was it like this when John the Baptist came to King Herod out in the desert, crying about salvation?"

New scene, another courier, this time with the Persian emperor, berating Muhammad's follower:

"You come out of the desert, smelling of camel and goat!"

Critics panned The Message in 1977 for its valorizing portrayal of the Prophet Muhammad's life. In Newsweek, film critic Janet Maslin deemed it "remarkably innocuous," dismissing the film as dumbed down and boosterish: "cinematically crude and so reverential toward its subject as to seem mechanical." The reviewers hardly mentioned the roadblocks Akkad overcame (not to mention the $700,000 replica of Mecca he constructed): Saudi and Moroccan officials, after initially permitting the project, revoked their permissions, which cost Akkad $6 million. Delays forced him to finish filming in Libya, with Muammar Qaddafi's willing approval. (And in 1981, Akkad reciprocated by producing Lion of the Desert -- about a Libyan revolutionary hero -- which was paid for by Qaddafi and also starred Anthony Quinn.)

Although The Message would be re-released for domestic and international audiences, the Hanafi Siege put a damper on Akkad's vision. In 1978, he about-faced to make his next feature, Halloween -- a low-budget slasher flick that grossed $60 million worldwide and gave Jamie Lee Curtis her first credit. After flopping with his epic, Akkad would spin Halloween into a franchise, making seven sequels. But Akkad could not escape religious fanaticism. He was killed in a terrorist bombing of a Jordan hotel in 2005. (Mark Steyn eulogized Akkad in The Atlantic in 2006.)

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Stopping Akkad's so-called sacrilegious picture was Khaalis's only successful demand. While the hostage standoff dragged on, police brought in ambassadors from Iran, Pakistan, and Egypt to communicate with Khaalis and attempt to appease him. They recited Koran verses and poetry to keep him calm. The State Department briefed President Carter on the situation, but the conflict subsided with a steady stream of hostages being released, and the Hanafis surrendering peacefully.

During their trial, the defense lawyer emphasized The Message as a leading motive of their protest, hoping to earn more-lenient sentences by arguing they had only acted in religious expression toward a denigrating film. "You can't convict these men for stopping a movie without any criminal intent whatsoever." A jury convicted the 12 Hanafi attackers with armed kidnapping, conspiracy, and murder, with Khaalis serving the rest of his life behind bars.

The 1977 Hanafi Siege would become overshadowed by other national-security scares of the era, sandwiched between more-famous hostage standoffs like the 1972 Munich Olympics and the Iranian hostage crisis years later. But with the recent uproar over Innocence of Muslims, The Message now seems like an odd progenitor -- a film with a foreign-born backer, a strong tie to Libya, and a precipitating legacy of violence.