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.