You don’t have to be an Islamophobe to say, “Enough already.”
It’s time for U.S. officials to stop apologizing for the YouTube video that supposedly sparked recent riots in Islamic countries. The video is merely a convenient pretext for religious radicals and irresponsible politicians to stir up anti-Western anger; they would have found another excuse if it hadn’t surfaced.
In an effort to avoid violence in Pakistan, the U.S. embassy in Islamabad broadcast ads on local TV showing American leaders denouncing the brief film. I understand the impulse – after what happened in Libya, the embassy is trying to protect its staffers. But attacking the video doesn’t get to the heart of the problem.
Here are six things you need to know about what’s really going on.
One: The YouTube video was deliberately promoted by radical clerics in Egypt, Pakistan and elsewhere to arouse publics who otherwise wouldn’t have seen it. In Cairo, a radical sheik aired it on his satellite TV channel (allegedly funded by Gulf money) and called for protests. This episode recalls the violence in 2005 over Danish cartoons satirizing the prophet Mohammad; those cartoons would probably have never made headlines had not a radical imam traveled from Denmark to Cairo and publicized them there.
Two: The violent demonstrators represent only a minority of Muslims (and their numbers in most countries were relatively small). In Libya, the attacks that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three of his staff appear to have been preplanned by radicals, surprising the Libyan government. Libyan good Samaritans carried Stevens to the hospital and were caught on amateur video praising God that he appeared still to be alive. In Tunis, the majority of people also appeared genuinely shocked when hard-line Salafis sacked the U.S. embassy and when local businessmen offered to help restore the destroyed American school.
Three: Violent protests against critiques of Islam have no roots in the Muslim religion. As the grand mufti of Saudi Arabia said last week, the Web video “would never harm the noble Prophet in any way, nor the religion of Islam.” He denounced the destruction of embassies and public buildings as un-Islamic. It’s ironic to hear a leading Saudi cleric condemn the violence given that private Saudi money is probably financing the hard-line clerics who promote it. But the grand mufti was correct to bemoan the fact that the violent reaction to the video advances the negative stereotype of Islam that the filmmaker wants to promote.
Four: The anger sparked by the video has roots far deeper than this dumb film. Pakistan is the perfect example: A third of Pakistani children never, ever attend school, the literacy rate barely tops 50 percent, and the economy is in the tank. “The country has 90 million youths under the age of 21, with no prospect of jobs, and unable to afford marriage, so you have a powder keg,” says Hussein Haqqani, the former Pakistani ambassador to Washington and longtime critic of radical Islamic movements in his country. Egypt, too, suffers from a huge youth bulge, high illiteracy and high unemployment – creating frustrations that Islamic radicals can manipulate with ease.
Five: Supposedly moderate Muslim leaders are afraid to challenge the radicals – or want to play the populist card to hide their economic failures. Thus, in Egypt, instead of trying to calm people down, President Mohammed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood called for a million-man march against the video, until a phone call from President Barack Obama persuaded him to call it off. Pakistani leaders also called for a demonstration that was manipulated by Islamists.
The White House must make clear that it’s unacceptable for Muslim politicians to abet violence against U.S. citizens on grounds that Islam has been insulted. If leaders such as Morsi or Pakistan Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf don’t respond, it’s time to reconsider our help with economic aid and loan forgiveness.
Six: Muslim leaders in Egypt, Pakistan and elsewhere have the mistaken idea that their blasphemy laws should be applied elsewhere. This can’t happen.
Egypt’s Morsi instructed his Washington embassy to bring charges against the filmmaker. Clearly, he doesn’t understand U.S. protections of free speech (despite a doctorate earned in California), or he is ignoring them to play to the crowd.
Meantime, Ashraf called on Muslim nations to band together to press the United Nations to pass blasphemy laws outlawing criticism of religion. Presumably that means his religion, since Pakistan’s notorious blasphemy law is often used to persecute minorities, especially Christians.
This is a reminder that, despite our many warts, the United States is more tolerant toward other religions than many Muslim majority countries. Within Pakistan, minorities have been killed by terrorist groups without stirring up the anger invoked by the video. In other Arab countries, insults to Christians, Jews, Bahais, Ahmadis and others rarely muster government outrage.
Clearly, Ashraf’s idea of promoting global laws against blasphemy is a nonstarter. The entire world will not censor itself to avoid offending a minority of Muslims stirred up by radicals and irresponsible populist leaders. Where would that end?
Blasphemy laws are a blight on Muslim countries that have them, and they are often used to pursue personal vendettas. In the West, we have different laws and customs, and that must be made clear to Muslim leaders. If the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo wants to publish caricatures of Muhammad to mock religious fundamentalism, it is entitled to do so under French law. If some crackpot in California makes a film that is legal here, there are no grounds to arrest him, no matter how obnoxious the provocation. He is not violating American law.
Back in 2009, when Obama made his address to Muslims in Cairo, he famously called for mutual respect between cultures. That is what he must insist on now.