The other night I spoke to a Muslim friend online, with whom I’ve been chatting for several years. He was very upset at the movie Innocence of Muslims, and didn’t much care for my response to his dismay. My take was that it was the work of individuals who hate Muslims, and that the riots the movie had set off in much of the world had been exactly what the moviemakers wanted. I reminded him that such scurrilous propaganda can’t damage God, the saints, or the Prophet. He asked, But what about their followers? And asked if someone were to defame my father, wouldn’t I want to retaliate? My reply was, If someone did that, I’d know they didn’t know my father.
Since then I’ve read several articles about the incident, and asked another Muslim friend his opinion. One article said that many Muslims believe that the US government was behind the movie, which I find unlikely. On the other hand, another article points out that the Bush administration not only invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, but President Bush referred to the invasions as “a crusade”, and his administration came up with the phrase “Axis of Evil”, referring to Iraq, Iran, and North Korea. Since that phrase became current, North Korea has acquired nuclear weapons, but the US government hasn’t even talked about invading them. Muslims could be excused for thinking that the United States of America wants to destroy Islam and Islamic countries.
Of course there are such people in America, some of whom are in the government. Andrew J. Bacevich, in his article, Boykinism, talks of William J. Boykin, who, when asked Why do they hate us, said, “The answer to that is because we’re a Christian nation…” He went on to talk about a Somali warlord who claimed that Allah protected him. Boykin’s response was, “I knew that my God was bigger than his. I knew that my God was a real God and his was an idol.”
If the arrogance of that response doesn’t explain why Muslims don’t like us (at least in part), I don’t know what will. To top that off, Mr. Boykin didn’t lose his job. Bacevich asks what would have happened had he said that about Israeli prime minister Netanyahu. I suspect the outcome would have been different.
Unfortunately, there are a number of Americans who believe just that, including one of my friends at work, a Christian who inclines towards the Fundamentalist end of the spectrum, and doesn’t accept that anything about Islam is true. I respect my friend, but must respectfully disagree with him there. At least he’s not obsessed with hatred, as many Islamophobes are. He doesn’t believe in the validity of Islam, but it’s not a constant topic of conversation with him.
As I said above, my opinion is that the makers of the movie were individuals who hate Muslims, and wanted to start trouble, rather like spoiled children. Another Muslim, whom I talked to online tonight, said that in Egypt (where he lives) TV programs had shown many of the protesters, and said that many of them weren’t even Muslim. If so, then we’re talking troublemakers on both sides, who could possibly start enough trouble to involve a large part of the world.
Leonard Pitts, in The Price of Freedom (an op-ed piece published in the local newspaper), begins his piece by quoting the First Amendment of the United States Constitution in its entirety, and emphasizing that those words are extremely dangerous. Dangerous because they protect not only noble and positive speech, but also the negative and disgusting. He points out that our country, which has had over two hundred years to get used to the First Amendment, is still not entirely comfortable with it. He mentions the Alien and Sedition Act of 1798, as well as the Snyder vs Phelps decision of 2011, “…a Supreme Court ruling upholding the right of a hateful Kansas cult to picket military funerals.” The cult, if I’m not mistaken, believes that our soldiers die in war because we tolerate homosexuality. If we in this country are uncomfortable with the First Amendment, we can’t very well blame people who live in countries without a tradition of free speech, or the laws to back it, to take hateful speeches lightly.
But it does seem important that we try to explain to foreign friends just why we consider freedom of speech so important. One reason is that it’s important to have the freedom to criticize the powerful, not only government officials, but religious leaders and communities, as well as leaders of industries and other important organizations. If such leaders have the power to suppress criticism, as is true in much of the world, and still happens in this country as well, then no one will have political freedom. Real revolutionaries speak the truth and work for it, and expect nothing less than to be imprisoned, tortured or killed for expressing their beliefs.
We in America have the advantage that we are at least theoretically free to say whatever we please to or about whomever we please. That theory doesn’t always work out in practice, though, as we saw particularly in the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s. Black people stood up for their rights, and a good number got mistreated or killed for doing so. Perhaps the tactic of nonviolence helped them to prevail, though, as well as the mass media. People saw blacks on television being persecuted unjustly, and that may have been a lot of the reason Civil Rights legislation was enacted in 1965. Not every American is fair-minded, but a lot are.
My friend said that the rioting was the only way Muslims could express their dislike for the movie. I’m not sure that’s true. Perhaps they could have tried nonviolent protests. Another approach might have been to get a respected Muslim leader to speak to the press on the matter. I’m reminded of what Ghandi reportedly said when a reporter asked him his opinion on Christianity. He said something to the effect that he had great respect for Jesus Christ, but little for most Christians. A Muslim leader could say it’s a pity that Americans are so rude and uncivilized. That would certainly be a valid criticism of the movie, from what I hear.
I suspect the moviemakers consider Muslims to be barbaric, and the violent response to the movie could, unfortunately, be interpreted that way. And wouldn’t it be better if Muslims reacted by thinking, Stupid people will say stupid things? Allowing stupid people to get you upset doesn’t seem like a very good idea, generally.
As Leonard Pitts said, it’s distasteful to have to defend a movie like Innocence of Muslims, but if we establish a precedent that some speech can be banned, how far away is it for ANY kind of speech to be banned? If you lived in a Communist country during most of the 20th century, you were likely to be sent away to jail for a long time, tortured or killed for criticizing Communism, the government, or individual Communist leaders. In democracies leaders are expected to be able to take criticism without retaliating. They’re supposed to serve the ordinary people, and not the other way around. Of course the temptation is constant for governments to misuse their power, and individuals have to watch and work against that happening. For this, freedom of speech is at least a necessary reminder that individuals do have rights, and that governments are not supposed to push them around. To make any necessary changes in our governments, we have to be able to talk about the real problems, which is difficult enough without having to worry about being imprisoned or shot.
I can’t blame Muslims for being offended by the movie. Muslims have some reason to feel that Americans in general, and the United States government in particular, hate them. They’re not completely wrong about that, but a lot of Americans feel otherwise, and wish we’d never started wars in the Middle East. I don’t think anything good came of any of the three wars of the last twenty years, and I think a lot of Americans agree. Some conservatives in this country want us to start a war with Iran to prevent them from building nuclear bombs, but polls indicate that most Americans disagree. One article said that even conservative Israelis, who might be expected to feel otherwise, think that war with Iran would be counterproductive, and that portraying Ahmedinijad as the new Hitler is ridiculous. So I think there are a lot of people in the west who do not hate Islam, and would like to live in peace with Muslims. Those who don’t are quite vocal about it, but that doesn’t make them a majority or powerful enough to make bad things happen.
Unfortunately, we can pretty much count on someone doing something (private individual or not) to offend Muslims and other groups. I only hope that Muslims can begin to see that these are usually stupid and fearful people, and should not be taken seriously. There will always be people who want to hate. I think usually the best response (though not easy) is to refuse to be provoked.