Protests, Prophets and the Perennial Clash of Values

“If a small, obscure, tasteless film is solely responsible for the anti-American sentiment in the Middle East, then American foreign policy is at the mercy of any provocateur with a pen or a camera.” – William J. Bennet

The Muslim world has been plagued with violence these past few weeks. A film, “Innocence of Muslims,” which depicts the Prophet Muhammad as a bloodthirsty, womanising, pedophiliac tyrant, triggered the furor. Since the outbreak of the violence, there have been various debates regarding who is to be held accountable. Democratic governments are faced with the challenge of balancing the rights of their citizens to exercise their freedom of speech and expression, with appeasing the deeply upset and offended Muslim countries that are demanding retribution for the anti-Islamic video. Now the question is, can the democratic West reconcile its differences with these conservative Muslim countries? Good start, but the notion of “these conservative Muslim countries” needs to be rethought.

Image courtesy of vikalpasl, © 2012, some rights reserved.

“I think there’s definitely a cultural red line in the sand with insulting the prophet and publishing images of the prophet” stated Andrew Muir, one of our very own analysts for the Foreign Affairs Review, who spent ten months in Egypt last year. Muir says that “people have pent-up anger there because they’re impoverished, they’re uneducated, the government has failed them for 30 years and now the promises of the new government haven’t been kept. The economy is really in the hole right now, they’re angry, and now there’s an outlet for it.” Now Muir stresses that by “people” he does not mean the wider Egyptian or even Muslim community. He underlines the importance of realising that this is a small portion of the community that has reacted to the video in this way. Furthermore he asserted, “To make a grandiose political statement about what [these protests] mean, would be like saying these protests in London last year were indicative of the entire British youth class falling off into a different society.” Muir cautions against making generalisations across the board. A number of people taking to the streets is not representative of the wider societies and governments in the region. However this should go both ways. Just as we should be expected to understand that the violent protesting, suicide bombings, issuing fatwas in countries such as Egypt, Pakistan, or Afghanistan is not representative of the governments’ or even the wider population’s modus operandi, so too those who found the video offensive should also understand that the video itself is not representative of the United States.

However, anti-American sentiment is being expressed in many of these countries. Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, emerging from hiding to make a fiery speech in Lebanon, emphasised that anger should not be directed at Christians, but rather at the U.S. On the one hand we see millions of people protest authoritarian rule in the Middle East during the Arab Uprisings, with an emerging younger class that has the desire to modernise and adopt democratic institutions, but on the other hand, a couple of years later, we see riots provoked over something that yes, is deeply offensive, but ultimately, this video is protected by some of the very rights that protesters and rebels were dying for during the Arab Spring. Irony aside, there should be genuine concern regarding the anti-American chants and posters and comments represented at these protests. White House press secretary Jay Carney asserts the violence in the Middle East: “is in response to a video — a film — that we have judged to be reprehensible and disgusting. That in no way justifies any violent reaction to it. But this is not a case of protests directed at the United States, writ large, or at U.S. policy.” This claim is difficult to believe when we consider that the American Embassy in Libya was bombed on September 11th, and the protesters in the streets of Beirut were chanting “death to America”, and “America is the great Satan.” The Obama administration can try to appease the Middle East all they want, but they will eventually reach an impasse.

The reality is that the U.S. is a country that values the individual and their rights, there is no state religion, and no competent government leader will incite the population to express hatred for another country and its entire population. Islam, however, values the community and the individual has a responsibility to the community. Islam often has a place in politics and in dictating how people lead their lives. It is hard to reconcile the values of a secular nation with one that is deeply pious, because with freedoms of speech and media, it is difficult to control and prevent individuals from making political statements, such as the “Innocence of Muslims,”. And seeing that liberal democracies are not very likely to rescind the personal freedoms promised to their citizens, Muslim countries might need to be so bold as to separate religion from the state in order to get over this hurdle. There needs to be a change in the mentality, a realisation that even though they might be profoundly religious, not everyone in the world is an observer of their faith, nor has obligations to it.

Going back to the quotation at the beginning of this article, is this video the sole source of anti-American sentiment in the Middle East? No, anti-American sentiment has been brewing in the region for decades. Is the video a powerful enough trigger to provoke anti-American activity? We’ve already seen that to be true. Is U.S. foreign policy at the mercy of any provocateur with a pen or a camera? Although it certainly seems to be the case, it seems there is a radical minority encouraging these protests and the rest want peace. The U.S. should remind these countries of their desire for peace and stability, and the U.S. needs to make it clear that they can be instrumental in this process. The American government is engaged in a propaganda war with many religious and government leaders in the region. The U.S. needs to revamp its image in the Middle East before it can hope to see some olive branches extended its way.