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Anti-film riots reflect deeper currents

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In the immediate aftermath of the violent protests that began in Libya on Sept. 11 and spread through much of the Muslim world in reaction to a crass U.S.-based movie trailer mocking the prophet Muhammad, the following editorial comments were typical:

• “Religious fundamentalists, moderates and liberal secularists are all jockeying for power in Middle East nations after the Arab Spring. The violence done [against the Americans in Benghazi] was apparently the work of a relatively small group of radicals not associated with any legitimate protest.” – New York Times

• “The riots serve the interests of the Islamic radicals who are jockeying for power in Egypt, Libya, Yemen and beyond.” “The mob has not taken over in the Arab world, but there are provocateurs hoping it will.” – Globe and Mail

• “In this age of religious extremism and globalized hate, isolated bigots and killers have an exaggerated ability to define the clash of civilizations. We shouldn’t let them: Just as [the producer of the film] does not represent western civilization, Libya’s murderers do not represent Islam.” – National Post

What they all shared in common can be summarized this way:

• The protests were not spontaneous widespread outbursts, but were an organized campaign by small radical political elements bent on influencing the outcome of the Arab Spring.

• These radicals do not represent the majority, where there is growing democratic pluralism.

• It is, therefore, wrong to view these protests as indicative of a “clash of civilizations” or clash of values between Islam and the West.

What was largely missed was a recognition of the deeper forces at play. While it’s true that radicals took advantage of the “film” and fanned the flames of outrage, it’s wrong to conclude that the outrage and intolerance were confined to the radicals – the Salafists – alone. There’s a pattern of behaviour going back to Salman Rushdie affair, the Muhammad cartoons, etc., that expresses a far more widely held attitude within societies where there is no genuine tradition of individually based free speech.

Among the first to remark about this was the CBC’s Neil Macdonald, who wrote the following on cbc.ca (Sept. 16): “Most of those rioting do not understand, or care about, the concept of free speech. That is evident in the widespread demands – including one from the Islamist president of Egypt – that America make the offending video disappear and punish its authors.

“Such calls are understandable, given that in many parts of the world, and not just Islamic nations, governments simply stamp out speech and imprison or just do away with the offending author.”

Macdonald faulted the Obama administration for trying to suppress anti-Islamic propaganda that the American government had nothing to do with. He specifically criticized the White House for prevailing upon Google to take the trailer off YouTube.

Macdonald’s take on this was blunt: “So, rather than trying to explain one of its bedrock, founding principles [free speech], the American government is sounding instead as though it sympathizes with those who would censor and punish blasphemy.” While Macdonald remarked that it may be unfair to say that Obama is “apologizing for America,” it’s not unfair to say that he’s “allowing America to be bullied by zealots.”

In her Sept. 18 Globe and Mail column, Margaret Wente summed up what others, such as the Islamic scholar Fouad Ajami (on CNN), are once again calling a clash of values: “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.”

Certainly one challenge for the Arab Spring is to see whether any other future for free speech is even possible. 

Paul Michaels is director of research and senior media relations for the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs.

This column appears in the September 27 print issue of The CJN

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