I nearly drove into a tree when I heard liberal commentators on the radio blaming a crude anti-Islamic video for the widespread outbreak of violent street protests by angry Muslims. “We have to remember that speech has consequences,” one of them warned. The protests spread to more than a dozen countries, including Somalia, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and even downtown Sydney in Australia, where a young child held up a sign that said, “Behead all those who insult the Prophet.”
But I was stunned when the U.S. administration blamed the video, too. “What sparked the recent violence was the airing on the Internet of a very hateful, very offensive video that has offended many people around the world,” explained Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the UN, on a Sunday talk show. The line was that the protests were directed against the video, not the U.S. – which might come as a surprise to the folks who were burning American flags and chanting, “Obama, Obama, we love Osama.”
Well, I guess blaming the video is easier than facing the facts. Back in 2009, President Barack Obama went to Cairo and promised to reset the U.S. relationship with the Arab world. Unlike his predecessor, he sympathized with Muslim aspirations. Muslims were anti-American because of bad American policies, and he would fix that.
Things didn’t quite work out as planned. Back then, 70 per cent of Egyptians had an unfavourable opinion of the U.S. Today, 79 per cent do.
The U.S. doesn’t have much influence in the Arab world these days. As Syria goes up in flames and the Arab Spring turns into a series of messy power struggles among countless rival factions, it’s clear that the transition from repressive dictatorship to moderate democracy will be a long time coming. The infamous video seems to have been a handy pretext for riots organized by radical factions who want to make the “moderates” look bad. If not for that pretext, there would have been another one.
In the wake of the protests, many Western commentators have pointed out that we all have extremists in our midst, and although there’s no excuse for violence, it’s reprehensible to rile people up by insulting their religion. This fake equivalency ignores the essential point, which is that the Muslim world abhors the crime of blasphemy far more than it values religious freedom or secularism or free speech. Any challenge to the Prophet or the Holy Book is cause for outrage.
In Western culture we insult religion all the time and think nothing of it. We fight for people’s right to put a crucifix in urine and put it on display and call it art. This difference in values is profound. If somebody accused Jesus Christ of violating little boys, few Western Christians would protest, storm embassies, burn flags or wave signs calling for the accuser to be beheaded.
Of course not all Muslims are intolerant. But if we value our freedoms, we are bound to offend a lot of Muslims a lot of the time. We can’t do much about it and we probably should not apologize. Should Salman Rushdie have apologized for writing The Satanic Verses? After all, millions of people were offended by that, too. Muslims have also been offended by a handful of obscure newspaper cartoons and by an obscure Dutch film. Last month, they were offended by a historical documentary aired on the BBC that dared to question the authenticity of some of the stories in the Koran. “Islam is a legitimate subject of historical inquiry,” objected the filmmaker, Tom Holland, who got so many threats that the BBC called off a private screening for security reasons.
Too many liberal intellectuals – and now, unbelievably, the U.S. administration – seem to think it’s partly our fault when Western insults to Islam lead to riots in the streets. But maybe there’s a bigger cause. Although it’s deeply unfashionable to say so, maybe what we have here is a clash of civilizations.