The American Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s claim that she finds the anti-Muslim film which has led to protests erupting across the Middle East against American diplomatic missions “disgusting” is a worthless gesture as far as the culpability of the American government for this affair goes, as well as an expression of the fear the US administration has regarding the impact on US interests from the powerful response from the ‘Muslim street’. It is worthless because in the same statement she also made clear that the US does “not stop individual citizens from expressing their views no matter how distasteful they may be”. In other words, I don’t agree with the film’s content, but I don’t disagree with allowing it to be produced and promoted in the United States to the World.
This is the same point that was made by President Obama when he claimed that the death of four American staff in Libya were “a reminder that the freedoms we enjoy – sometimes even the freedoms we take for granted – they’re only sustained because there are people like those who were killed, who were willing to stand up for those freedoms, who were willing to fight for those freedoms, in some cases to lay down their lives for those freedoms”.
It is quite clear that this is an issue of principle for the American government – linked to the claim of “freedom of expression” that is enshrined in their own holy text, the US constitution, and the normal refrain of Western politicians and media when it comes to excusing anything that insults Islam and inflames Muslim sentiments.
Given that this is the case, it is disingenuous for the US government to simultaneously claim it is not responsible for the film while maintaining the legal environment that allows such materials to be freely produced and promoted. It is plainly hypocritical to celebrate the freedom of expression that permits the movie, while trying to wash their hands of any culpability for it.
It could be pointed out that the concept of freedom of expression is not upheld unconditionally in the West. For example, in the past a number of suspected communists were jailed in the United States in the heated environment created by Senator Joe McCarthy, while today it is illegal to deny the holocaust in some countries and at the same time across the West many Muslims have been imprisoned on charges of “glorifying terrorism”, purely related to expression.
So it is not illogical for Muslims to believe that “freedom of expression” is used against them when justifying the denigration of their beliefs, and left to one side when it comes to individuals from the Muslim community expressing themselves against Western foreign policy for example.
However, the issue is more fundamental than the hypocrisy displayed in the application of “freedom of expression” – which is that the idea of unrestricted speech is not in agreement with Islamic doctrine, and is considered a destructive concept which destroys harmony in the society.
The examples of this in Islamic law are many – one example would be the law mentioned in the Quran that someone who accuses another of fornication and then does not produce four eye witnesses to the act is to be publicly punished, thus protecting peoples’ honor and reputation. Another would be that it is forbidden to insult the Prophets of God, such as Moses, Jesus and the final Prophet of Islam Mohammad.
In others words, while the American government celebrates the “freedom” it guarantees in this case to allow people to provoke Muslims by insulting their Prophet in a cheap, hate-filled and slanderous manner, Islamic belief rejects such behavior as depraved and illegal.
The reality is that allowing the insulting of the Prophet Mohammad is a red-line that cannot be crossed for Muslims. Many of these protesters around the World can see that this film, innocuously entitled “The Innocence of Muslims”, has been produced and is being promoted under the protection and legal framework of the United States – whose government has expressly confirmed their right to do so – and hence quite fairly hold the American government ultimately responsible for it, irrespective of whether or not the Secretary of State personally agrees with its contents.
This leaves us with the question of why offended Muslims feel the need to protest at the site of the American embassy, which can end up in violence spiraling out of the control and, in the case of the storming of the American consulate in Benghazi, the unjustified killing of the staff there (the killing of ambassadors is expressly forbidden in Shari’a law)*, an unfortunate consequence of what began as a protest for the sake of Islamic values.
The reason for this is that across the Muslim world, there is no single government that represents Islam internationally and would take suitable actions such as open condemnation of the film and requesting the American government to remove it from circulation. Of course, the American government could refuse this on the grounds of “freedom of expression”, which could then be met with whatever sanction they were able if their request were not complied with such as the cutting of diplomatic and economic ties between the two. The point being – there would be a government which is representing the Islamic viewpoint regarding these issues, and people would look to it to take firm stances in their interests, and it can be dealt with at a state level. In the absence of such a government, people take to the streets to express their anger, a sight that is likely to become more visible in the new Middle East without the same Western backed dictators such as Hosni Mubarak around anymore to keep them in check.
If such a government – representing Islam and Muslims rather than a nominal nation state – did indeed exist, the issue of relationship with the American government would be a moot point in any case. With American troops on the ground in Afghanistan and elsewhere, and predator drones killing “terrorists” (which according to the US government is any Muslim adult male who happens to be in the path of one of their missiles) with impunity in Somalia, Yemen, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and yes – in Libya – it is unlikely there would be any room for friendly relations until American behavior radically changes. While Obama fools himself into thinking that the US is the World’s “indispensible nation”, many of its innocent victims would beg to differ.
* Update 11/10/2012
The State Department has now made it clear that there was no protest against the movie in front of the US consulate in Benghazi that night, and that the attack which killed the Ambassador was premeditated. And yet, President Obama as late as September 26 was still linking the attack to the protests.
On 14th September, 2012 – in the UK, Azhar Ahmed was found guilty of “grossly offensive communication” by posting a facebook message stating that “all soldiers should die and go to hell”, when commenting of the deaths of 6 British soldiers killed by an IED in Afghanistan.
In the United States, On April 12 2012, Tarek Mehenna was sentenced to 17 years in jail for translating an openly available e-book by an al-Qaeda member that had already been widely quoted elsewhere, and supporting the right of Muslims to defend themselves when occupied (while being against the world view of al-Qaeda and the targeting of civilians)
Reza Pankhurst is a political scientist and historian, specialising in the Middle East and Islamic movements. He has a doctorate from the London School of Economics, where he previously completed his Masters degree in the History of International Relations. He was a political prisoner of the previous Mubarak regime in Egypt, spending almost 4 years in jail between 2002 and 2006. His forthcoming book is entitled “The Inevitable Caliphate?” (Hurst/ Columbia University Press 2012) and is available at Amazon and other retailers. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org