Islam blasphemy riots now self-fulfilling prophecy
15 Sep 2012

The protests against controversial film “Innocence of the Muslims” follow a pattern familiar since the days of the Satanic Verses fatwa, says James Kirchick. And so do the reactions of many western liberals

Take Two: Film protests about much more than religion

A blackened flag inscribed with the Muslim profession of belief, "There is no God, but God and Mohammed is the prophet of God," is raised on the wall of the US Embassy by protesters during a demonstration against a film. Nameer Galal | Demotix

The United States is the world’s undisputed king of culture. No country’s film industry can rival Hollywood; no nation’s musical artists sell more records worldwide than America’s. Boasting such a diverse, pulsating, frequently vulgar and often blasphemous entertainment industry, not everyone — including many Americans — is going to be pleased with what they see and hear coming out of the United States. Films ranging from Martin Scorcese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (which depicted the lustful fantasies of the Christian savior) to Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (which depicted Jesus’ crucifixion as essentially Jewish-orchestrated) have outraged Christians and Jews, respectively. The latest Broadway smash hit, The Book of Mormon, mercilessly ridicules the foundation myths of America’s newest and fastest-growing major faith.

In none of the controversies surrounding these productions, however, did the producers fear for their lives, nor did US government officials feel it incumbent upon themselves to apologise to the world’s Christians, Jews or Mormons for the renderings of artists. This straightforward policy of respecting the autonomy of the cultural sphere was amended earlier this week, however, when a branch of the United States government officially apologised to the world’s Muslims over a film for which the word “obscure” is too generous.

On 11 September, 12:11 PM Cairo time, the Embassy of the United States to Egypt released the following statement:

The Embassy of the United States in Cairo condemns the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims — as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions. Today, the 11th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, Americans are honoring our patriots and those who serve our nation as the fitting response to the enemies of democracy. Respect for religious beliefs is 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.

The “misguided individuals” in question were the producers of the now-infamous YouTube flick, The Innocence of Muslims, a crude, low-budget film which portrays the Prophet Muhammad in a none too pleasant light. Much about The Innocence of Muslims remains a mystery; its now-debunked origin story, that of an “Israeli Jew” filmmaker who “financed [it] with the help of more than 100 Jewish donors,” had all the makings of anti-Semitic disinformation campaign.

Several hours after this statement was released on the Embassy’s website, about 2000 Salafist protestors gathered outside the US Embassy, breached the compound’s walls, took down the American flag, and replaced it with the a black banner inscribed with the Islamic profession of faith: “There is no God but God and Muhammad is his prophet.” When, in the aftermath of this outrage, some American conservative bloggers began criticizing the Embassy’s statement as an apology for a specific exercise — however crude — of the constitutionally-protected right to free speech, the Cairo Embassy’s Twitter account defiantly released the following:

Shortly after 10:00 P.M. that evening, the campaign of Mitt Romney, Republican presidential nominee, released the following statement:

I’m outraged by the attacks on American diplomatic missions in Libya and Egypt and by the death of an American consulate worker in Benghazi. It’s disgraceful that the Obama Administration’s first response was not to condemn attacks on our diplomatic missions, but to sympathize with those who waged the attacks.

This riposte was embargoed until midnight, 11 September being a day that American politicians exempt from their usual partisan sniping. Yet, shortly after releasing the statement to the media, the Romney campaign lifted the embargo. Heightening the controversy was the revelation that Islamist militants had attacked the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya (it would not be confirmed until early next morning that the Ambassador, Chris Stevens, had been killed). Suddenly, an issue not normally considered American presidential campaign material — freedom of speech — had become a political football.

Since then, the liberal chattering classes, as well as ostensibly unbiased news reporters, have universally condemned Romney for “politicising” a national tragedy (just watch this press conference Wednesday morning in which reporter after reporter asks the Republican candidate, incredulously, how he could deign to stoop so low). The main line of attack against Romney is essentially a defense of the US Embassy’s original statement, which, in the words of Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank, “came out before the attacks, was issued by career diplomats in Cairo without clearance from Washington, and was disavowed by the White House.” This line was echoed in a New York Times news story, which reported that “The embassy’s statement was released in an effort to head off the violence, not after the attacks, as Mr. Romney’s statement implied.”

“But the fact is that the ‘apology’ to our ‘attackers’ was issued before the attack!” pronounced Michael Tomasky of The Daily Beast. Josh Marshall, proprietor of the popular Talking Points Memo blog, declared that the two-sentence statement from the Romney campaign was reason enough to disqualify the former Massachusetts Governor from the presidency. “Romney, or folks writing in his name at his campaign, claimed that the administration’s first response to the attacks was to issue a press release condemning the anti-Islam film which had helped trigger the attack,” Marshall wrote. “In fact, according to all available press reports and the account of the State Department, the press release in question came from the US Embassy in Egypt and preceded the attacks” (emphasis original).

The New York Times, America’s left-wing pundits, and the rest of those who have criticized the Romney campaign are missing the point, which is that it is no more  appropriate to apologise for the First Amendment before a raging mob attacks an American embassy than it is to apologise for the First Amendment after such an attack occurs. The embassy’s pre-emptive apology – and that’s exactly what it was – shows just how useless it is to apologise for the most basic principle of the Enlightenment. Someone who would ransack an embassy and kill American diplomats over a movie he saw on the internet is not likely to be persuaded by a mere statement assuaging his “hurt religious feelings.”

The Obama administration did indeed repudiate the Embassy’s statement – which has since been removed from its website – and some sources have anonymously claimed that the release was the work of a freelancing, public diplomacy officer who acted without express approval from Washington. This, the administration’s supporters claim, absolves the president of blame for a statement they nonetheless defend on its merits. Regardless, the buck stops with the President of the United States; if a US Embassy releases a statement, one must assume it is something the President stands behind. Revoking the statement while failing to discipline or fire the individual behind it sends mixed signals. Moreover, in remarks at the White House condemning the murder of Ambassador Stevens, the President appeared to reiterate the Cairo Embassy’s statement, announcing that “We reject all efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others,” in effect passing a value judgment on a certain instance of expression while failing to explicitly defend the principle of free expression itself.

Like the fury over the Muhammad cartoons in 2005 — which were published months before opportunistic imams whipped up an international (and deadly) controversy — clips from The Innocence of Muslims were put on YouTube in July this year. It was not until 9 September, however, that the Grand Mufti of Egypt declared that, “The attack on religious sanctities does not fall under this freedom,” the freedom in question being freedom of speech. Pointedly, the asinine US Embassy statement, while directly condemning shadowy American filmmakers, made no mention of the Egyptian Grand Mufti or other religious fanatics who had condemned the film and whipped people into such hysteria.

We are now treated to the strange spectacle of Western progressives aligning with Islamic religious reactionaries, both arguing that freedom of speech can go too far (of course, it is only speech that offends Muslims which comes under progressive suspicion; the same liberals who insist that the tender sensitivities of Muslims be respected have no problem with speech that maligns religious Christians and Jews). Those arguing that the YouTube clips that allegedly “incited” this mess should be banned – like the Guardian’s Andrew Brown – would do well to pause and consider the implications of what they are arguing. Does Brown think that Mitt Romney, a practicing Mormon, would be justified in demanding that the New York City authorities shut down The Book of Mormon? I am frequently outraged by what I read on the website of Brown’s newspaper (as one wag put it to me; “With Comment is Free, you get what you pay for”); would I be justified in expressing that anger through violence towards various and sundry Guardian writers?

Meanwhile, one can turn on the television or open a newspaper in any Muslim country and be sure to find grossly anti-Semitic material that is just as, if not more, offensive than anything contained in The Innocence of Muslims’ puerile script. Do American and British Jews then trek to the Libyan or Egyptian embassies in Washington and London, scale the fence, plant an Israeli flag on the roof, slaughter the ambassadors therein, and drag their remains through the street?

At least since the Rushdie affair, rioting and murdering over “insults” to religion has been a phenomenon almost exclusive to Muslims. It is strange, then, that those who insist the West must show more respect for Islamic civilization are precisely the same people who treat its adherents like children.

James Kirchick, a fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, is a contributing editor of The New Republic. He tweets at @jkirchick

Also read:

Kenan Malik on The Satanic Verses and free speech andWhy free expression is now seen as an enemy of liberty

Sara Yasin on France, Charlie Hebdo and the meaning of Mohammed

When we succumb to notions of religious offence, we stifle debate, writes Salil Tripathi

Sherry Jones on why UK distributors refused to handle her book The Jewel of Medina


10 responses to “Islam blasphemy riots now self-fulfilling prophecy”

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  2. Jane says:

    American and British Jews would not even have to look so far as the Islamic world to find anti-semitism that is worse than this movie. Look at the President’s spiritual advisor Jermiah Wright who, like many promienent blacks, openly promotes the black Muslim hate group Nation of Islam. This hate group speaks openly, with no protest, at colleges all over this country at the invite of black and Muslim student groups. Their “literature” is openly sold and mainstream bookstores and carried by libraries. The NAACP, Tavis Smiley, and many other blacks openly promote them. Shame on our President for harrassing private citizens for insulting the feelings of people in Pakistan while worse hate speech is uttered freely by Muslims in this country with no fanfare at all.

  3. BenSix says:

    Regardless, the buck stops with the President of the United States; if a US Embassy releases a statement, one must assume it is something the President stands behind. Revoking the statement while failing to discipline or fire the individual behind it sends mixed signals.

    Why must one assume that? Are we to believe that Obama has a hand in reviewing the statements of America’s hundreds of embassies? That’s a bizarre thing to claim. It’s true that Romney’s shameless opportunism is not the main issue here but as he’s defending it he’s exacerbating the disproportionate coverage and as he’s defending it badly he doesn’t even have the excuse of being right.

  4. Storm Bringer says:

    What’s new? Muslims are always “offended” and constantly finding brand new things to “offend” them. It seems that many Muslims are just simply born “offended” and to find everything “offensive” although they can be strangely shameless when it comes to violence and making death threats.

    If Muslims are destined to riot in Islamic countries every time someone posts something they don’t like on the Internet then they are simply going to have to resign themselves to repeatedly rioting on a very regular basis because the Internet is going precisely nowhere – the hardware and technology is far too ubiquitous to ever be “dis-invented”. It is time that the Mullahs and Imams got real and finally understand that the modern world and the very nature of communication technology has simply left their Dark Age backwardness very far behind.

    As seen from the documentary “Islam: The Untold Story” – the primitives are no longer able to “magically” shield their baseless, evidence-free, truth-denying beliefs and superstitious fairy tales from the full scrutiny of the 21st century by making death threats and resorting to violence. Whether is is impartial scholarship, satire, merciless ridicule or unimaginative insult, the Muslims are going to find out, the hard way, that we can and we will do exactly all this and more and that there is absolutely nothing that they can do to prevent any of it.

    If rioting Muslims wish to systematically shoot-themselves-in-the-foot by destroying their own communities and trashing their own cities because of their pathetic, immature inability to control their own emotions then that is their own business – it has absolutely nothing to do with what free individuals personally choose to think, say or say what they think in free democracies that recognises their constitutional right to do exactly that.

    The right to free speech and free expression (as it is practiced by Americans in the US) is simply a non-negotiable absolute that is far more sacred and necessary than any religious person’s belief in their precious Prophet.

  5. […] ignores deep unease at the US’s role in the Arab world, says Myriam Francois-Cerrah Take Two: Islam blasphemy riots now self-fulfilling prophecyIt would be very easy to cast, as many commentators have so far, the latest riots in response to the […]

  6. Huges P

    This piece isn’t one-sided; the intellectuals’ group-think that is urging legal action against the video and over-identifying with the “hurt feelings” notion are the one-sided approach who have gotten almost no debate — except from Romney. And he is absolutely right that they are apologizing, and that when they pander that way, they wind up aligning themselves with contrived victims who then go on to perpetrate murder and mayhem against others. That’s morally and legally wrong.

    The aim isn’t to calm ruffled feelings but to strongly, unremittantly, tirelessly, keep fighting back against this outrageous totalitarian notion that speech gets to be curbed by violence — or else. There is nothing that justifies this.

    Your idea that there is some “special path” for some countries or religions that we must all tip-toe around has no basis in the international human rights system. Human rights are universal. You’d be the first to say they should be vigorously applied to the US or Israel, but then you can’t explain whey they shouldn’t be applied states that either condone or participate directly in violence under the “insult” rubric. Why would any differences in development justify murder? They wouldn’t.

    In fact, the debate finally takes a turn away from the hopeless and fruitless accomodationism that didn’t work, and marks out a way in which both the bluff must be called and the principled positions articulated.

    AdamP, “partisan” seems to mean merely anybody who disagrees with the “progressive” hegemonic line on these things on Twitter and everywhere else. And good for James Kirchick that he has broken with that line. The liberal chattering classes indeed have had an awfully hard time in saying in full voice that nothing justifies violence, and have fallen over themselves to try to find somebody else to blame besides the Islamists — in this case Romney. The statements *are* apologia.

    Why are we calling for American responses to become more nuanced and not these murderous jihadists who think they can use a silly crude film as justification for murder? They and their supporters are the ones who need to be come more nuanced.

  7. Good for James Kirchick, he has gotten this issue exactly right.

    The statement of the Embassy in Cairo *was* an apology, because it started from a pre-emptive position of over-empathizing with “hurt feelings” without any limit, even capable of murder. It should have started with an affirmation of both freedom of religion and freedom of speech, and condemned hate speech and disassociated from it while frankly condemning any violent response in advance. At this point, with years of these incidents from the “Satanic Verses” to the Danish Cartoons to the Koran burnings, it’s time to get our act straight on this and generically condemn violence in advance so it is unmistakeably the responsibility of those who commit it.

    The pandering in the Cairo statement was inexcusable, especially when the US and Egypt co-sponsored a resolution at the UN Human Rights Council on religious intolerance that explicitly made the distinction between “incitement of imminent violence”and insult, and which kept away from the notion of “defamation of religions” that those using the term “denigration” in fact replicate. It amounts to blasphemy laws. This video does not constitute “incitement to imminent violence” because thats means calling on others to target Muslims with violence, not Muslims committing violence because they are insulted.

    Banging on Romney was merely opportunistic group-think. He didn’t do anything wrong; on the contrary, it’s highly disturbing that it took his frank statement to shake up Obama and Clinton into doing the right thing and saying “Nothing justifies violence.” They should have opened with that point in Cairo in the first place.

    If the OIC persists in invoking “defamation of religion” as a notion to curb free speech which angry Muslims get to enforce through violence and even murder, the West should fight back with a resolution on “insult violence” that follows the same logic as efforts around “honour killings” or hate crimes against LGBT.

  8. Hughes P says:

    Read the article hoping to gain some more information and a balanced point of view on the situation as I would expect from Index on Censorship but to be quite honest am reading what seems a one sided, angled and quite aggressive article which rather that promote more understanding seems to add to the divisive nature of it all.

    Feeling somewhat perturbed I checked the writers twitter page which was mentioned under the article and after reading one tweet in particular, from the 13 Sept, which I don’t want to repeat, and the conversation it was placed in feel even more perturbed that what I am reading is a heavily slanted piece as I said which does nothing really to aid understanding. Not only that he does not even consider that perhaps the main aim was to try to calm the situation and prevent further bloodshed/injury on whichever side.

    What is needed here is understanding – and I don’t think it fair to compare one religion which really has remained in the past for all sorts of reasons to others, which in the past had similar problems too, but which now have a more enlightened view simply because they have been allowed to develop freely within more progressive democracies – so again more understanding is needed here of the differences in the ways each of them have progressed or not and for why. And I don’t feel the writer nor the article makes any attempt to acknowledge why there are difference and how these differences have brought us where we are today.

    A wasted opportunity, and again sadly does nothing to move the debate forward in a positive manner.

  9. AdamP says:

    Whoops, misread his name – should of course read ‘Kirckick’.

  10. AdamP says:

    Quite right in saying that those on the left should be as strong in our condemnation of violent attacks on innocent people, and to realise the limits of the ‘sensitivity to cultural differences’ approach that is a natural reflex for many on the left. Sensitivity and tolerance of difference does not mean we shouldn’t stand up for the principles we believe in.

    However, James Kirchark’s ridiculous attempts to claim that condemnation of a clumsy and ignorant attack on Muslims by the Embassy (in a volatile region where they need to be more sensitive to nuances and longer term public opinion in order to advance US interests in the area) amounts to an apology taints what could otherwise be a point worth making. It’s clear Kirchark is trying to make a partisan argument here rather than advancing the debate, and his attitude comes across quite clearly with the use of phrases like ‘liberal chattering classes’.

    There is an argument to be made about standing up for the values that our society holds dear, and clearly that is important. But in the context of a world where there are other countries who do not hold those values as dear as others that we may find repugnant, we need to accept that our responses need to be more nuanced, working with the world as it is (though obviously we should always be wary of slipping into cynicism or complacency). To do otherwise is to be as naive and idiotic as Kirchark’s ilk frequently criticise those on the left for being.