By Abdulaziz H. Al-Fahad
The recent eruption of violence in various Muslim capitals directed at the U.S. (and other Western) embassies, with tragic losses in life and property, is a predictable, if sad, consequence of globalization. The world is increasingly pulled together by the relentless push of modern technology and integrated economic systems on the one hand, and simmering conflicts periodically manifested on the cultural realm, on the other. The occasion for the latest uproar, the anti-Muslim "movie" denigrating the Prophet of Islam, is the latest chapter in an ongoing conflict that appears to become more aggravated over time, in no small measure due to growing Islamophobia in the West. The conflict is also helped now by the weakening security apparatus in the various Arab states experiencing mass uprisings, and the ability of various groups to exploit this vacuum to further their own political goals.
A few decades ago, this movie, or a preacher threatening to burn the Quran in Florida, or a cartoon published in a Danish newspaper would have passed, in all likelihood, unnoticed (at least by the offended parties), let alone cause major violent protests spanning continents. But in our globalized present, with the various tools of instant communication and social networking available to large swathes of humanity, what happens in a faraway place is immediately splashed everywhere, often with deadly results as we are witnessing today. Within this diverse yet networked humanity, where marginal figures are empowered, someone invariably takes offense at perceived insults emanating from distant lands. Despite all the energetic and well-meaning condemnations by sensible parties on both sides, it is unlikely that we will see an end to this cycle anytime soon.
With its rich tradition of freedom of expression and secularization, denigration of religious figures, even when controversial, is protected speech in America. For many Muslims, in contrast, any transgressions on the cherished symbols of their beliefs have nothing to do with freedom and everything to do with a hegemonic West intent on willful and reckless disregard of Muslim sensibilities. For some in the Islamic world, this is the latest manifestation of the longstanding hostility of western Christianity reaching back to the early days of Islam, the Crusades, the colonial legacy, and the establishment of Israel in the heart of the Arab world, not to mention more recent American armed forays in various Muslim territories. This vicious circle of mutual miscomprehension is further compounded by the fixed, if inaccurate, belief within Muslim societies, that whatever happens within the western media must be at least tacitly approved by the relevant governments. In many Muslim countries, freedom of expression within the media barely exists.
Thus the conflict is viewed in starkly different, clashing perspectives. The West appears to frame the issue as a conflict between freedom of expression and censorship, whereas for many in the Islamic world it is a willful insult by a powerful West intent on maintaining its dominance in Muslim lands. If these differences continue to be viewed through these conflicting prisms, there is little hope for an accommodation to ameliorate, let alone stop, these periodic, violent flare-ups.
But Western insistence on framing the issue in terms of freedom of speech versus censorship risks missing a larger point, and borders on disingenuous. Western societies had to grapple with their own sense of balance between permissible and impermissible speech, and not all strike the same balance. While the United States maintains a robust and expansive view of such freedom through its First Amendment jurisprudence, some European societies (and Canada) have opted to carve out a "hate speech" exception criminalizing certain categories of expression. This divergence between the two approaches could be seen, for example, in the treatment of the Holocaust in their respective legal systems. While several countries would view denial of the Holocaust as a crime not protected by freedom of expression and would sanction the perpetrators, U.S. legal tradition would not allow the outright criminalization of such expression but would deal with it essentially by extralegal means, through marginalization and condemnation of transgressors and ensuring that certain matters are taboo and not acceptable in general discourse.
Americans remain faithful to the requirements of the First Amendment while simultaneously banishing offensive language, as determined by domestic American sensibilities, from the public sphere, and by severely delegitimizing those who resort to them and relegating them to the margins of society. In addition to Holocaust denial, the "N" word is perhaps the clearest example of the practical accommodation between free speech and curtailment of the same through non-legal means in the U.S. for the sake of social peace. No one denies anyone's right to use the racist word, but effective social mechanisms ensure that those inclined towards deployment of this offensive language are consigned to the fringe, invariably described as "lunatic."
As admirable as this western tradition of freedom of expression might be in the eyes of many Muslims, they remain unimpressed by a West that finds mocking God, Jesus, Moses or Muhammad to be protected speech but worthy at best of muted condemnation, while denigration of the Holocaust or uttering an offensive racist epithet are either criminalized or rendered into untouchable taboos. From that perspective, the West is not truly wedded to an absolute notion of freedom of expression but instead accommodates its own prejudices with regards to what is "offensive" through both legal and extralegal means. The underlying logic, of course, is grounded in specific cultures and histories, as opposed to universalist ideas, and deference to Muslim sensibilities has certainly not been part of that heritage.
Western societies have come a long way from its early days of crude prejudice and racism - except towards Muslims, one of the last frontiers of acceptable bigotry. The incessant rise in Islamophobia, not just as a fringe phenomenon but within the mainstream, belies Western claims to universalist values. The West has achieved remarkable success in combating its own demons of (anti-black) racism and anti-Semitism, to mention only two salient examples. While many in the West, like the rest of humanity, are not innocent of harboring such hateful sentiments, those who choose to display them are quickly condemned and banished from respectable circles or jailed. But when prejudice and hate is directed against Muslims, the guardians of the boundaries of acceptable speech are either absent or complicit.
Thus the outlawing of minarets in Switzerland is stamped with popular approval; the full veil is rendered into a crime in some European countries (although acknowledged to be a fringe practice, hardly deserving of any attention, let alone the full weight of the law); and opportunistic U.S. politicians hold anti-Muslim hearings and shamelessly peddle the phantom dangers of sharia, calculating that there is only an upside to the matter: classic solutions in search of actual problems. Equally disheartening, well-known Islamophobes are ensconced in mainstream institutions with influence over decision-makers, instead of being treated as outcasts. And Hollywood is still busy doing its best demonizing Muslims typically (with rare exceptions) cast as villains, stereotyping in ways it would not dare do with other groups.
The permissive public atmosphere towards Islamophobia has allowed haters to spew their vitriol far and wide without paying any discernible price as would be the case if other communities were involved. A recent advertisement in an American city dubbed Muslims as savages; Muslims very well know if the identity of the target were to be changed to another community (e.g., blacks) the resulting uproar would have been substantial and free speech would have been an irrelevant argument. Inversely, until recently Aljazeera English failed to find cable distributors in the U.S. who had reportedly deferred to the wishes of the State Department.
Rightly or wrongly, there is strong suspicion in many Muslim countries that US bombings of Aljazeera's offices in Afghanistan and Baghdad were more intentional than inadvertent mistakes. It is within this overall unhealthy atmosphere that Muslims' perceptions of the West are formed and informed. The movie is not an isolated incident but a particularly vile version of what is acceptable (as opposed to free) speech in the West.
This is not to absolve Muslims who share the same sin of allowing a permissive atmosphere of intolerance towards others. The West, particularly the U.S., has been vociferously expressing views, especially since 9/11, about anti-western sentiments in the Muslim world. School curricula in many Islamic countries have been revised both in deference to a powerful West making its wishes known, and also in recognition that in an integrated world, such an atmosphere is not only wrong as a matter of principle, but decidedly dangerous. The same applies to intolerant preachers, many of whom had to go through "re-education" and many of whom were purged. No one can claim the Islamic countries work of combating such hate is done, but the trend so far has been in the positive direction, something that cannot be said about many societies in the West.
Yet notwithstanding this move in the right direction within some Islamic societies, the ethos of civil protest is still wanting, despite encouraging signs during the Arab Spring. To express outrage at actions or sayings that are offensive is one thing; to cause death and destruction has to be a red line that Muslim societies have to rigorously impose, a task that is now even more urgent with the removal of authoritarian enforcers and the advent of representative government. The unqualified reaction of condemnation by Libyan citizens (joined by the majority of political, social, and religious leaders throughout the Arab world) against those involved in the murder of personnel in the U.S. consulate in Benghazi is one encouraging sign that violence has become unacceptable as a mode of expression. In contrast, Mitt Romney got it exactly wrong in his hasty denunciation of the condemnation of the "film" by the staff of the U.S. embassy in Cairo. Traditions of free expression preclude banning of speech but provocative bile should be labeled as such.
What is clear in these times is that Muslim sensibilities have not been incorporated by Western societies, and vice versa, and perhaps at this stage in history it is ambitious to expect otherwise. But in this shrinking world, indifference to the sensibilities of others comes with a price. Unfortunately, the comparison of the attacks against the Prophet, seen as deeply offensive by many Muslims, to criticisms of his Biblical counterparts, which is accepted speech in western societies, is a misdiagnosis. Most non-westerners would probably fail to understand why the Holocaust and the "N" word are more sacred and protected than God in the West and why transgressing against them is not tolerated, free speech notwithstanding. Perhaps the West could view some Muslim sensibilities as product of their own specific histories deserving of the same respect accorded to others.
The scenes we are witnessing today are horrifying. People of goodwill must draw the right lessons and work to help bring about an atmosphere of mutual tolerance and respect for matters that may not be readily understandable by everyone. For the West, that means the permissiveness (indeed tolerance) of Islamophobia within respectable circles should no longer be accepted. For Muslim societies, a better appreciation of free speech and the adoption of peaceful protests (including economic boycotts if need be) must replace the mob mentality characteristic of many of the responses over the last several years. The mob mentality is exploited by the more odious elements within Islamic countries who are espousing clearly dangerous and unacceptable notions of permanent war with the rest of the world, which in turn provide fodder for the Islamophobes the world over.
Alas, there is no magic wand to transform ours into a world of sufficient mutual tolerance and respect. But all people of goodwill must do what they can to bring it about where Islamophobia and unbridled anti-western sentiments, if not totally banished, are at least consigned to the margins of civilized discourse and conduct.