I’ve lived and traveled in Islamic countries and most of the drivel that gets spouted about Muslims is just that, drivel.
I’ve watched some of the clips of the film — produced in the US by a self-described Israeli — that sparked this week’s deadly violence in Egypt and Libya. It’s loathsome, racist stuff. Actors in the film literally wear blackface as they portray the crudest stereotypes of Islam.
But I’m also a big believer in free speech and artistic license.
It’s essential that the hateful stuff that gets said and written about Islam in America, Israel and Europe be allowed expression.
We need to know where these pools of bias and bigotry are collecting. We need to hear and understand their ideas and have the opportunity to challenge them.
As unrest was growing in Egypt and Libya, the US embassy in Cairo issued a statement condemning “the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims – as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions.”
[NOTE: It is now clear that while the statement was issued as a response to growing unrest over the film in question, it was not a response to the murder of US officials in the Libyan embassy. The previous paragraph has been changed to include this new information.]
The statement goes on to describe “respect for religious beliefs” as a cornerstone of American democracy. “We firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others.”
I think this was a missed opportunity to make clear to the Islamic world — which obviously has some fiercely-held common beliefs — that we in America have some bedrock convictions as well.
One of those convictions is that the right to speak and express ideas (even really bad ideas) trumps the religious sensitivities of other people.
In our society, the two things aren’t co-equal.
Your religious views (which you are free to hold) don’t occasionally or sometimes or in moments of tension trump my right to express my opinions, even if your religious views are really, really important to you.
We exist in a conversation, one where neither of us is allowed to tell the other to shut up. That’s one of the reasons American politics are so noisy, and so wonderful.
I understand the temptation that US diplomats faced. When Muslims in tinderbox places like Afghanistan, Egypt, Iraq or Libya are enraged by Western expressions and ideas (from political cartoons to literary novels to crummy films), the expedient thing is to express sympathy, compassion, cultural sensitivity.
But this kind of thing is, on its face, dishonest.
In fact, American society does not “reject the actions” of those who abuse the right of free speech. On the contrary, we defend those rights (and by extension, the freedom to commit those actions) constantly and vehemently.
Over the years, our Supreme Court has issued decisions supporting ugly speech, including NAZI marches, the burning of crosses, and the picketing of funerals by radical Christians.
The only exception is speech, quite narrowly defined, that deliberately and specifically incites audiences to violence.
Particularly in the face of violence and riots in the Muslim world, US officials should be unambiguous in their support for free expression.
By embracing mob thuggery, Islamic activists only make it that much clearer how important it is that civilized people protect speech and expression.
Who knows? In time, our unwavering example might give Muslim nations a model for talking and thinking out loud about the increasingly painful questions facing their own troubled societies.
In fact, the one thing the Islamic world needs, more than anything else, is the freedom to debate publicly and freely about its strengths, its weaknesses, and its future.
If some Muslim leaders want to deny that freedom to their neighbors, through violence and savagery, that is far, far more offensive than a crummy film made by a crackpot in America.