Thoughts on the Embassy Attacks

As you've no doubt already heard, American embassies throughout the Middle East have been attacked by violent mobs in the last few days, ostensibly due to outrage over a YouTube video called "Innocence of Muslims" that lampoons the Prophet Mohammed as a blundering, deceitful fraud. At least one of the attacks, on the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya, was apparently an organized assault by Islamic militants who wanted it to seem like a spontaneous mob action. But the violence has been too widespread to explain all of it this way. At this point it's broken out in Egypt, Yemen, Tunisia, Afghanistan, India, Lebanon, Sudan and elsewhere, and targeted not just American embassies, but European embassies, military bases, fast food restaurants, and anything with a real or perceived connection to the West.


To be clear, I'm not in any way defending the film itself, either on the grounds of historical accuracy or artistic merit. By all accounts, it's laughably amateurish and fairly explicitly racist. The actors who took part in it have claimed they were duped, that they were told the film was a low-budget desert adventure epic with no connection to Islam or Mohammed, and that the plot was changed by dubbing new dialogue after their scenes were shot. I find this plausible.

With all that said, however, I have to admit that there's no moral equivalence to be drawn here. The free expression of opinions, however reprehensible those opinions are, isn't a crime against human rights. Violence is. The producers of the film (who are apparently trying to stay in the shadows) may well hold false or bigoted opinions about Islam. But if their intent was to enrage Muslims and provoke them into violence against innocent people, thereby demonstrating that Islam is a backward and violent religion... well, they've made their point.

The principle here is the same as with the Jyllands-Posten cartoons of Mohammed: the only way to create a truly free society is by protecting all speech acts, including offensive ones. If we argue that disrespect of people's religion should be outlawed because it leads to violence, then we've rewarded the worst fanatics: we've taught them that they can have whatever they want, just as long as they're willing to commit violence if they don't get it. They can restrict others' freedom of speech and action in any way they desire, they can expect to have their religious beliefs written into law in any way necessary to placate them. This seems like an obvious point to me, but apparently it's not obvious to some people, like Anthea Butler, a Pennsylvania religious-studies professor (!), who argues that the filmmakers should be imprisoned. (Has it occurred to Butler that courses like hers would be next on the chopping block if Islamists had their way? There's nothing that infuriates a fanatic more than dispassionate historical study of his religion.)

But the occasional ignorant response is to be expected. What I find more disheartening is that this mindset of rage and honor is so common throughout the Islamic world, even in democratic nations like India, Indonesia, or the new democracies of the Arab Spring like Egypt and Tunisia. Doubtless this is a vast oversimplification, but if this kind of energy was turned to productive ends, the people of these countries could sweep away decades of corruption and repression and promote vigorous, educated, prosperous new societies. Instead, the apparent sole desire of millions of people is protecting their religion from criticism at all costs, and lashing out violently whenever they feel it's been disrespected. And this mentality, of course, is self-perpetuating: open minds and rationality lead to ever-greater advances in learning and an ever-wider intellectual horizon, but closed minds and ignorance beget closed minds and ignorance. (I have no doubt the overwhelming majority of the protesters have never seen the film and know nothing about it beyond what they're told by clerical demagogues.)

I don't know how to break this cycle. I remain hopeful that greater democracy in the Islamic world, and the greater openness that it inevitably brings, will in time tilt the balance toward free speech and reason. But democracy is no panacea, as these very public setbacks demonstrate. If there's anything we can do to accelerate the transition, I'm open to suggestions.

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