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.
"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:
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
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.
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.
Hamaas Abdul Khaalis, the leader of the Hanafi Muslim Movement of America
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.
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
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
"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
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!"
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.)
* * *
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
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
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.