In the wake of last week’s attacks on the US embassy in Cairo and the US consulate in Benghazi, and the killing of the US Ambassador to Libya and several of his staffers as they helped evacuate that consulate, US (and other Western) embassies have been attacked across the Islamic world. These attacks were purportedly instigated by a new film, titled “Innocence of Muslims”, which claims to portray the life of the Prophet Mohammad. At the very least the film gave Islamists a pretext for attacking the United States. But it is the reaction to “Innocence of Muslims” throughout the Islamic world that is a telling indicator of the intolerance of the Islamic world and, I think, gives a good example of why many in the West are, with good reason, afraid of Islam as practiced by a good chunk of its adherent. (As a side note, I refer to the Islamic world rather than Islam intentionally. Like Christianity and Judaism, or any other religion, Islam is capable of tolerant and open-minded interpretations and intolerant and hateful interpretations. It is what its adherents make of it).
The film is offensive. Not surprising, it was intended to be offensive – its promoter appears to be Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, a Egyptian-born Coptic Christian with a hate-on for Islam (although given the persecution of Coptic Christians in Egypt in recent years, can you blame him?) It’s also mind-numbingly stupid. It looks like it was put together by some high school drama club. It’s the sort of film that says more about the people who made it (none of it good) than it does about Muslims or Islam. Had it been targeted at Jews (and it’s worth noting that similar films, websites, and what have you, if not worse, targeted at Jews are found all over the internet and are routinely broadcast on state media in the Islamic world – I’m not familiar with Jewish groups ever haven torched an Egyptian embassy) it would, if it were even noticed at all, have been dismissed with contemptuous laughter.
But not with Islam. No, apparently for some in the Islamic world, religious offense is grounds for anger, resentment, violence, even death. Now, there are those in the West who are keen to reassure us that the Islamists who attacked the US are extremists, outside the mainstream of Islamic society. As the Toronto Star’s Haroon Siddiqui puts it: “An overwhelming majority of Muslims found the murders [of US Ambassador Stevens and his colleagues] as abhorrent as any other people”. In his view, if moderates in the West were more critical of Western anti-Islam extremists, they could promote understanding between the Islamic world and the West.
I’m sure he’s right about the first part. But at the same time, he’s unintentionally damning Muslims with faint praise. Ambassador Stevens was an utterly innocent man. He had done nothing that, under any semi-reasonable interpretation of even the strictest interpretation of Islam might remotely be considered offensive (on the contrary, he had worked effortlessly to rebuild Libya). To find his murder abhorrent isn’t a testament to the tolerance or moderation of the Islamic world, it’s a testament to the fact that most of the world’s Muslim population are not immoral psychopaths. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad to hear it, but you’ll forgive me if I find that less than satisfying.
A better test of the extremism of the broader population of the Islamic world is to ask what its citizens would do to Nakoula Basseley if they ever got their hands on him. Aaah, well Siddiqui doesn’t talk about that – with good reason. After all, he knows (or should know) how the Islamic world would treat Nakoula, because it’s set out in the criminal laws of most Muslim countries. At best he would be subject to a hefty prison sentence or corporal punishment – blasphemy laws being regularly enforced throughout the Islamic world. Since blasphemy is a capital offense in many chunks of the Islamic world (including Pakistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Yemen, Nigeria), there’s a good chance he’d be put to death. And, in practice, he’d have good odds of being hunted down and killed by an angry mob before authorities could get their hand on him (not an uncommon occurrence in countries like Pakistan, Indonesia, Nigeria or Egypt – often the “accused” only avoid that fate by fleeing the country).
And, let’s be clear, these are not “outliers” in the Islamic world. Quite the contrary, these are countries that are the pillar of Islamic civilization. Pakistan and Indonesia are the two largest Muslim-majority countries in the world. Iran and Saudi Arabia are certainly not outside the Muslims mainstream – they’re the two largest proselytizers of their respective branches of the Islamic faith (i.e., Shiite and Sunni). Nor are blasphemy laws unpopular statutes imposed on the citizens of predominantly Islamic countries. Quite the contrary, they’re often enacted (whether by dictators or democrats) precisely because they are popular, in order to sooth their devout voters. It’s no coincidence that Mohammad Morsi, Egypt’s President, danced around criticizing the people who attacked the US embassy. It wasn’t because he’s socially awkward or a lousy politician (he’s neither), it’s because a powerful block of Egypt’s electorate sympathizes with them. In the Islamic tradition, converting from Islam (apostasy) is a form of blasphemy. In a recent Pew survey, Muslims in various countries were asked whether they supported the death penalty for apostasy. In a number of countries, the imposition of the death penalties was supported by hefty majorities (Egypt, 84%, Jordan, 86%, and Pakistan, 76%). In Saudi Arabia and Iran, apostasy is a capital offense. Remember, we’re talking about killing people for exercising what in Canada (and throughout the West and according to the UN) is a fundamental human right, namely religious freedom.
So when Siddiqui and others say that the people who killed Ambassador Stevens are outliers in the Islamic world, he’s right. But they differ from most of the Islamic world not on fundamental matters of conscience – the consensus in large chunks of the Islamic world (including some of the most important countries) is that it is OK to kill people who offend Islam – but in how those matters of conscience should be enforced (by the state, against actual blasphemers, not by rogue terrorists against innocent people – although, as noted, there’s at least a significant minority who isn’t opposed to lynching the odd blasphemer). It’s moderation, of a sort, but not one that provides much comfort.
Moreover, Islamic attitudes towards blasphemy are symptomatic of a fundamental gap between the values of the West and of the Islamic world. The same Pew survey also asked people’s attitudes about stoning adulterers or cutting of the hands of thieves and robbers. Again, they found large majorities in many Muslim countries in favour of such practices. The Islamic world is one where religious minorities are persecuted. Persecuted groups include Jews (the destruction of millennium old Jewish communities throughout the Arab world over the past 60 years has gone widely unnoticed) and Christians (among other religions), but also dissident Muslims sects – more than a few observers have noted that many Muslims have more freedom to practice variant of Islam in the West than in many parts of the Islamic world. That the perpetrator of the “Innocence of Muslims” is a Egyptian Coptic Christian is not a coincidence. It’s world where woman continue to live as second-class citizens and homosexuals are persecuted (homosexuality remains illegal in the vast majority of countries with a Muslim majority population, often punishable with lengthy jail terms – in seven of them it is punishable by death).
And in many ways “Innocence of the Muslims” embodies the cultural gap between the Islamic World and the West. In the West, the notion of tolerance is broad enough to include pointed, even nasty, criticism of religious faith and faithful (anyone watch “Family Guy” or “Southpark”? Ever listen to Sam Kinnison? Dennis Leary?). In the Islamic World such speech can earn you a death sentence or, at a minimum, a hefty jail sentence (and I’m sure Arab prisons are swell). In the West criticism of religion, even in the crude and stupid form of “Innocence of Muslims” engages the fundamental freedoms of speech and religion. In the Islamic world, such freedoms are non-existent or sharply constrained. In the West, an acceptable response to offensive speech is counter-speech. In the Islamic world, an acceptable response to offensive speech is death, if not of innocent American diplomats, than certainly of the offender who gave offense to Islam. Is there any wonder, then, that people in the West are afraid of Islam, at least as it is actually practiced in the Islamic world?
This is not, contrary to Haroon Siddiqui’s wishful thinking, a cultural gap that can be overcome by being more critical of fringe elements in the West. Frankly, Western condemnation of the Nakoula Basseley’s of the world isn’t going to mean much to those who think that blasphemers should be executed. Worse, such criticism will only legitimize that prospective, particularly when Western cultural relativists like Haroon Siddiqui incorrectly suggest that offensive portrayals of religious figures are not forms of speech protected by freedom of expression (as an aside, the attitude of many journalists to protecting free speech is disgraceful – once upon a time journalists were militants in defense of free speech, not they’re quite content to dismiss it when it suits their fancy). This cultural gap is real, and can only be addressed, if at all, by deep cultural change. Assuming we don’t sell out our cultural values in the name of appeasing the intolerance of the Islamic world (and inspite of the generally surrender-monkey attitude of the cultural-relativist left, I don’t see that happening), the Islamic world is going to have to learn to live with Western tolerance.