Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Do Muslims not Understand Free Speech? The Hate Film Furor

Photo: Have a look at these images from Libya, showing how the Libyan people condemn the attacks on US embassy.   So have the Libyan Ulama (religious scholars).   This attacks seems to be coordinated by al-Qaeda sympathizers, using this occasion to stage their assault.    More coming soon.  (excuse spelling in picture!)

There are some events so shocking that you cannot process them coherently in words, even a week later. The horrific news of the killing of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other diplomats in Libya on September 11 is one of them. This article is not about that. As it turns out, the armed attack on the American consulate in Benghazi may have been unrelated to the Islam-reviling video clip that launched coincidental protests first in Cairo and then across the Muslim world.
But the question remains, about the crowds of hundreds or in some cases thousands who mobbed American embassies from Tunisia to Indonesia with protest signs against the so-called ‘Innocence of Muslims’ trailer, do Muslims not understand free speech? Why the violent reaction to such a laughable, beyond-amateurish attempt to insult their Prophet? Why not simply shrug it off as the piece of insignificant Muslim-baiting it is? Are Muslims too unsophisticated to understand the concept of free speech?
It’s not that simple. Muslim societies are sophisticated enough to be aware that the concept of free speech is not an absolute, even in the West. They are aware that in France or Germany, anyone who questions the number of victims of the Holocaust, let alone denies it, is jailed. They are aware that in France, Muslim girls are not allowed to wear a headscarf, a symbol of their faith, to public school.  They may or may not be aware that in the United State, the most recent attempt to adopt an amendment to criminalize flag desecration- which would include use as clothing or napkins- was defeated in the Senate by a single vote in June 2006.
In Egypt, people remember that United States administrations intervened regularly to condemn and ask for suppression of films, songs, or books critical of Israel. As the Mubarak regime complained at the time to the Bush administration, the U.S. criticized the Egyptian regime for cracking down on free speech and then asked it to do just that when it disapproved of the form that speech took.
Free speech is not an absolute value, anywhere in the world. Every society draws its red lines in a different place. In the United States, the First Amendment does not protect you if you cry fire in a crowded room. Hate speech is not protected if it is an incitement to violence.
So it may be simplistic to assume that Muslims just ‘don’t understand’ free speech. Even if it were an absolute value in the West, which it demonstrably is not, that does not mean that the rest of the world accepts that value as absolute. Indeed, as Stanley Fish pointed out in the New York Times today, the majority of the populations of the world, not only Muslims, place respect of religion above respect of free speech.
This California-produced ‘film’ was made, distributed and exploited with the transparent purpose of inciting furor, against Muslims and by them. Still, the question goes begging: why do Muslims rise so easily to the bait, time after time? Why does the blowback spread so predictably across the world? Why do they not respond in more measured, effective ways, or better still, ignore the derisory provocation for what it is?
The answer lies in the context on the ground: a world in which two Muslim countries are invaded and occupied by the West; a third nation currently threatened with pre-emptive bombing; a fourth subjected to drone strikes and their ‘collateral damage;’ and so on. The powerlessness to resist these concrete forms of subjugation and humiliation, and the perception that the gratuitous insults to the Islamic religion are part and parcel of the same supposed ‘war against Islam’, make the region a tinderbox that explodes at the striking of the flimsiest match.   
And once again the tragic dynamics play out. The perpetrators of the provocation claim their right to impunity, and the images of rioting Muslims confirm the opinion of those in the West who see them, at best, as political primitives who do not understand ‘free speech’, or, at worst, as violent followers of a violence- prone religion. 


  1. As an American who never supported incursions into Iraq or Afghanistan and who has for many years supported an equitable solution to the plight of Palestinians, I must admit after much soul searching I find recent actions in the Mideast extremely troubling. I have tried to look at the situation openly and without bias. I have done my homework, reading as many of the news accounts as possible. I would like to quote from an opinion piece on Aljazeera written by Murad Alazzany which I believe summarizes the current situation in Yemen and across the Mideast. Alazzany writes:

    "Yemenis feel hurt by the film mocking the prophet. But there is disagreement among Yemenis as to how they should react to the film. By talking to ordinary people, listening to preachers in the mosques and following posts and comments on Facebook, it seems that the mood of Yemenis can be divided into three.

    One group believed that the film was insulting and it was their religious duty to protest against it. They encouraged people protest against and it was members of this group who gathered in front of the American embassy on Thursday.

    The second group as much as they expressed anger of the film, they rejected violence as a means to protest against. They viewed the breaking incident into the embassy as an immoral act. For them, there are many ways to express anger other than destroying properties and plundering equipments. Such acts, they say, contradict the teachings and principles of Islam- the religion of peace and tolerance. Members of this group are, in fact, plenty in number.

    The third group believe it was a kind of stupidity to show any reaction to the film as it gives its producers the publicity they are looking for. They likened its production to terrorist attacks by which publicity is intended more than destruction and causalities. Thus, the best way to ensure the film a failure is to completely ignore it.

    Their position, according to them, is proved right with the publication of cartoons of the Prophet by the French weekly magazine ‘Charlie Hebdo’ on Wednesday. A move seen by them a response to the Muslims’ widespread outrage over that film. It mainly intended to irritate Muslims and to satirize their reaction to the film more than to insult their prophet. Will Muslims got provoked every time an unknown scoundrel publish something depicting their prophet, they chokingly asked."

    So being an American, and an individual whose political leanings are supportive in many ways of Islamic principles, I have to ask, "When the Prophet, may peace be upon him, is blasphemed, like many, I feel outraged. Protest is one thing, murder is another. Should I feel no outrage on seeing the symbol of my country, the flag, desecrated with such joy across half the world?"

    I have a brother that I don't get along with. Over time I have found that it its better if the two of us avoid each other. After many years of believing that all men of good faith can learn to live together, if we just work to celebrate our differences instead of despising them. I would like to ask, in light of recent events, is it not time that like my brother and I, we would be better off if the West and the Mideast agree to have as little contact as possible. Close the embassies, limit travel, close the borders, live in our separate worlds. If this is not the best way to proceed, then what better alternatives are there?

  2. I appreciate your thoughtful comments.
    One hopeful note is that increasingly, Muslim leaders are exhorting their followers to meet insult with indifference, and realize that the 'honor' of the Prophet or of Islam is too well established to need defending from every derisory insult.
    As for the separatist scenario you suggest, allow me to remind you that it is too late now, with the U.S. is as deeply involved around the globe as it is through its military and economic interests, to dream of shutting out the rest of the world. In any case, today's world is far too interconnected.


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