This past week has seen America’s Middle East policies called into question as violent riots and protests have raged across the region. The apparent cause of such fury? A very low-quality independent film called “The Innocence of Muslims” that was produced in the US. Lengthy clips from the film, which paints a highly unsavory picture of the Islamic Prophet Muhammad and viciously skewers the faith, were uploaded to YouTube and became known to people in Muslim nations. The violence and ensuing chaos from the protests in Libya lead to the killing of, along with three other Americans, US Ambassador Chris Stevens. While radical Islamist protesters killing American soldiers and security workers has sadly become commonplace in the ongoing wars in the Middle East, the death of a diplomat – a national ambassador, no less – was particularly shocking, and drew a swift response from President Obama.
Apart from a firm condemnation of the attack and a touching acknowledgment of the bravery of Stevens and his fellow compatriots, Obama said the following: “While the United States rejects efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others, we must all unequivocally oppose the kind of senseless violence that took the lives of these public servants.”
There is a problem with this statement: it acts to legitimize the killings. His strong criticism of the controversial film effectively says “You are completely right to be angry”. No, Mr. President, they are not right to be angry! Just as a Christian would be wrong to be angry over a Bible being burned by an individual on the other side of the globe, Muslims in the Middle East and elsewhere should not be infuriated over a film, Islamophobic or not, that was made by an American citizen.
Americans have a constitutionally guaranteed freedom of speech, and while any decent person would agree that making such a film is morally wrong, the president should have also acknowledged the inalienable right of the filmmaker to express his views freely. In other words, Obama should have said something to the effect of “I personally disagree with the filmmaker and his despicable film, but this country will ardently defend his right to produce it”. The utter lack of a defense of free speech in the president’s statement was a failure of his office and a failure to the values of this country.
Sadly, these protests again remind the world that much of the Middle East is still not ready for democratic government. One of the prerequisites for democracy is free speech; free speech is essential, as it allows for a society where governmental failures and abuses can be openly and honestly criticized and change freely called for. Free speech ensures that all ideas (even ones that are contradictory to a country’s values, as in the case of “The Innocence of Muslims”) can be expressed without fear of injurious retaliation, physical or otherwise.
Whether or not these types of protesters represent the majority (they almost assuredly do not), they have unfortunately become the most vocal segment in their region, and as long as they remain so, there can be no growth of free speech or democracy in the Middle East. Until the silent majority is willing to publicly rise up against such hate, theocratic tyranny will continue to dominate the region and, furthermore, the mainstream perception of Islam will sadly remain that of an intolerant faith.
As such, a challenge has been posed to peaceful Middle Easterners, Muslim or not – to have protests of their own, not for hate and violence, but instead for tolerance and peace. The eyes of the world are upon these people, to see whether they will have the courage to stand up to the radicals and tell them the unapologetic truth: that they are wrong.