This is not what I was planning on writing about today, but the protests and riots in Egypt, Libya, Yemen, etc. require a few words.
1. I don’t quite understand the argument advanced by some that Obama or Clinton or any other government official should not have condemned the movie clip that started this whole mess. As I have written many times before, I am a free speech absolutist and do not believe that anyone should ever be censored, but that is not the same thing as arguing that hateful and abhorrent speech should be completely consequence-free. Nobody within the government is suggesting that the people behind the film should be arrested, fined, or sanctioned in any way, which is precisely what freedom of speech is meant to protect, but it does not then follow that the film should not be criticized (and let’s please put the ridiculous “apologizing for American values” canard to rest, since apologizing and condemning are two very different things). Freedom of speech means that you get to say whatever you want and that others get to say whatever they want in response. To those who are complaining that Obama and Clinton condemned this film but let plenty of other hate speech pass without comment, I would remind you that the primary responsibility of government is to protect its citizens and it is possible that the government’s condemnation will save some American lives by defusing the situation. It is also why the comparison to the Piss Christ exhibit a few years ago is a bad one, since nobody’s lives were in danger in that situation. While it might feel good to get angry at what appears to be a blatant double standard, the bottom line here is that we must deal with the world as it is rather than how we want it to be, and condemning the film while making it crystal clear that this type of speech is always allowed in the U.S., as Clinton did yesterday, is absolutely the right move in my view.
2. I also don’t quite understand the calls for trying to place the violent response to the film in a larger context of demonization of Islam or mistreatment of Muslims in Western countries. There is nothing that justifies the violence that is taking place against U.S. embassies, foreigners, journalists, and others, not to mention that tarring all of the U.S. with the brush of demonizing Islam is no different than portraying all Muslims as terrorists. I do not think that the film results from an environment in which is widely acceptable to dehumanize Muslims, but even if that were indeed the case, it does not justify the response in Libya, Egypt, or Yemen. I would also add that the rioting is going to do absolutely nothing to convince the reprehensible characters responsible for this film that their views are wrong, and is in fact going to have the precisely opposite effect.
3. Following 9/11, there was a concerted effort on the part of the U.S. government and other governments across the world to stress that the actions of al-Qaida and Osama Bin Laden did not represent Islam and that Muslims should not be held collectively responsible for the actions of a small extremist group. I agree with that 100% and believed at the time and still believe now that it is the correct approach to take, since Bin Laden should not be viewed as a proxy for Islam or for Muslims more generally. By the same token, this film needs to be accorded the same standard, since a couple of nutcases in California do not speak for or represent the U.S. government or American society. The notion expressed in countless interviews with protestors and implicitly suggested by the actions of rioters is that the U.S. must answer for this film, which is completely ridiculous.
4. Something that I am eager to have explained to me by someone whose understanding of Islamic theology is deeper than mine (and I am not being sarcastic; I am genuinely interested): why is there an assumption on the part of the rioters and protestors that Muslim religious principles should be universal? An article in the Egypt Independent on the reasons behind the protests in Egypt quoted a protestor explaining his anger by saying, “It is forbidden to depict the Prophet, especially when they say the exact opposite of the truth about him.” I get that the prohibition exists in Islam, but I don’t get why that means that non-Muslims across the entire world have to adhere to it. Judaism forbids eating milk and meat together, but Jews are not going around burning McDonalds franchises because they serve cheeseburgers, nor are Mormons ransacking Starbucks stores because they sell caffeine. For that matter, Islam forbids eating pork and drinking alcohol but Muslims are not demanding that all of Earth’s 6 billion residents refrain from having a beer with their barbecued ribs. Why is the expectation that everyone adhere to Islam’s prohibitions on depicting the prophet, and why does it only apply in this case but not to other activities prohibited by Islam? Again, I am not being snide but am actually looking for an answer.
5. I can’t help but note that as Arab countries literally burn, the Turkish response has been entirely different. I have not seen one report yet of any protests in Turkey over the film, and certainly no rioting or threats to the U.S. embassy. Two thoughts from this: first, this is as good a proof as any that blaming Islam wholesale for what is going on at the moment is not capturing the story accurately, and second, it is further evidence that the people who talk about Turkey’s “Islamist government” or describe the AKP as Islamist radicals have no clue what they are talking about.
6. Finally, for those waiting for things to get better, I have a sinking feeling that you’ll be waiting awhile. Arab publics have a seething resentment against the U.S. for all sorts of reasons, and if you think that these protests are simply about a film, I’ve got a bridge in Brooklyn to sell you. The depth of the problem should be quite evident by this point following U.S. backing for democratic change in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and other places over the past 18 months that has bought it little credibility or leeway in these very same countries. I don’t know what the answer is for U.S. policy short of shuttering embassies and completely disengaging from the Middle East, which is obviously not a real option. I do know that we should expect violence targeting U.S. interests for years to come because people are upset for a host of reasons, some more legitimate than others, and this will not abate any time soon.