The United States has a Muslim problem. Actually, I’d make that more general: the western world has a Muslim problem, and what’s worse, it’s irreconcilable.
Here it is, succinctly – in the West, we believe strongly in freedom of expression, of religion, of thought. Islamists don’t. For them, there is a Truth, and any act or statement that blasphemes against that truth is not merely an offense, it can be a capital crime.
In other words, for us it’s, “I deplore what you say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it”; for them, it’s “I deplore what you say, and I’ll put you to death for saying it.” It’s hard to get more fundamentally opposed than those two statements.
Now, let me make it clear from the outset that this characterization does not apply to all 1.5 billion Muslims in the world today. But it’s a reasonable guess that about ten percent of the Islamic world feels this way, and that’s still about half the size of the U.S. population.
And there is absolutely nothing we might do to avoid the kind of conflicts that have erupted over the last few weeks. Mohammed al-Zawahiri, brother to the current al Qaeda leader, and one of the men who led the Cairo riots, admitted he had not even seen the offending video that has supposedly inflamed the region. “We reject the title,” he told an interviewer.
So they are rioting in protest of the idea of the movie. Just as they rioted in protest of the possibility that a publicity-seeking minister would stage a Koran-burning, or at fictions of soldiers at Guantanamo stuffing the Holy Book in a toilet. All it takes is the suggestion of an insult to their Truth and the mobs are in the street, and inevitably people die.
“The Innocence of Muslims” may be trashy, poorly made, and deliberately provocative. It is also smack dab in the middle of the filmmaker’s Constitutional rights to produce it. We will never persuade the Arab street that allowing its production is not the same as approving its production, let alone representing any view of the American people or its government. And we shouldn’t try, since the next outrage could be caused by something completely incidental, or even misunderstood.
We can’t go around bowing and scraping and trying to persuade people that they shouldn’t be angry at us, because in a very real sense, their issue is as much with us as it is with the real or imagined slight. Mohammed Morsi, Egypt’s President, has called for us to take steps to silence such profanity. The Muslim Brotherhood has no qualms about criminalizing such behavior, and our failure to do so makes us complicit.
And even though we don’t literally outlaw inflammatory film-making, our embassy in Cairo did condemn the film and express its regret for the hurt feelings of Cairenes who feel they’ve been wronged. And our own government asked Google to check into the possibility that the posting of the movie trailer violated some censorable rule; later on, Federal agents escorted the film-maker from his home for questioning. All these are signs that confirm to the rioters that in its heart, the Government of the United States finds more validity in their complaints than in the film-maker’s right of free speech.
These gestures of conciliation do no good, of course, any more than the rest of Barack Obama’s naive and self-indulgent campaign to “reset” relations with the Arab world. The rioters come out anyway, and half-measures expressing sympathy only lead them to demand more compliant gestures.
More productive would be to proclaim our principles without apology: In the United States, we uphold the rights of people to express themselves in any way they choose. Defending their right to do so is not to agree with the expressed views in any way; but we will not infringe on our most cherished freedoms out of distaste for what is done with them. We believe that truth is reached through the free competition of ideas, and that it is the mark of a mature society that it can tolerate the offenses to which that competition gives rise.
This, of course, will not put an end to the riots in Cairo or Yemen. But to the extent that American sympathy for the rioters gives them encouragement, it will stifle that particular source of oxygen. And it will have the additional merit of positioning the United States as the beacon of principle for Western values – as it should be. Right now, it appears those values are less than certain.
It bears mentioning that our problem with Islamist intolerance is less profound than that of governments in the region. Those that are struggling to establish representative democracy must balance the rights of participating groups against the refusal of the Islamists to accede to basic pluralism.
There are indeed those who prefer Western-style secular governing. In Libya there have been pro-American, pro-government, anti-terrorist demonstrations over the last few days. The slain ambassador, Christopher Stevens, was popular in Libya, and his death was a shock to many who were happy to see the end of Moammar Qaddafi.
As I wrote about a year ago, this is the danger of the Arab Spring – that those who want to move West will be outmaneuvered and out-politicked by the better organized Islamists. The intolerant will also have street violence on their side – and as Pakistan’s experience has shown, facing down the Islamists can be fatal. Idealism may in the end lose out to cynicism as the pro-democracy people watch their opportunity wither.
We do no favors for those trying to transform their countries if we appear to kowtow to the sensibilities of the intolerant. We should rather stand confident in the rightness of our values, and give them something to aspire to that is higher than obedience. The only way the Islamists will fade from the Arab street is if their countrymen and especially women move their society into the 21st century.