What was it that prompted throngs of protesters across the Arab world to rise in fury against the United States? What was the impetus for the violence that left an American consulate burning, an American-run school destroyed, many injured and some dead, including UC Berkeley alumnus and ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens?
A video, it seems. That’s right, a video — purportedly a trailer for a movie called “Innocence of Muslims” — made by no-name bigots in Southern California seeking to offend followers of Islam. As film critic Ann Hornaday has noted, the trailer is so pathetically poorly made, so vulgar, jumbled and incoherent that it looks “less like promotional scenes culled from a fully realized motion picture than a primitive piece of cynical agitprop.”
It is tragically ironic that Christopher Stevens was murdered in the city he helped save from annihilation in 2011. But a deeper irony lies at the heart of all the violent outpourings of anti-American rage that continue to sweep across the Muslim world as people call for America to punish the makers of the video. Less than two years ago, the streets of Cairo, Tunis and Tripoli were packed with demonstrators demanding freedom and self-government. Over the past few days, demonstrators have taken to the streets again — this time to exhibit widespread intolerance of free speech, the bedrock principle of any democratic society.
Washington Post columnist Kathleen Parker had an appropriate message for the mobs: “Hey, demonstrators: Anybody can make a movie. It doesn’t mean anything. And by the way, anybody can burn a Koran. Or a Bible. Or smear feces on a crucifix. Or … ad infinitum. We tolerate rudeness because the alternative — state-enforced politeness — leads to the guillotine.”
If the riots of the past week have shown us anything, it is that there is a sizable strain within political Islam that is unable or unwilling to tolerate rudeness or worse. This strain has revealed itself before on a smaller scale — when Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa calling for the murder of Salman Rushdie because of his depiction of the Prophet Muhammad in The Satanic Verses, when Theo van Gogh was murdered after creating a movie about violence against women in some Islamic societies, when protests broke out after a Danish newspaper published cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad.
But more than the current crisis, those instances reflected actions by a smaller number of extremists, rather than widespread fury. It appears that the collapse of Arab dictatorships, which had for years suppressed expressions of popular rage, has merely exposed the intolerance of free speech — and therefore the elusiveness of democracy — that afflicts the Middle East.
As we observe the chaos convulsing in postrevolutionary Arab countries, we should be reminded that democracy is more than just the absence of formal dictatorship — it requires at least some degree of respect for freedom of expression and a willingness to be confronted with new, provocative, distasteful and even offensive ideas.
That is why the calls for censorship in response to the video, aired in major newspapers across the country, have been so disturbing. In the opinion pages of the San Francisco Chronicle, commentator Mustafa Malik called for America to “revisit free speech” in the wake of the Middle Eastern riots. More outrageous yet were calls, most notably in a USA Today piece by prominent University of Pennsylvania professor Anthea Butler, for the creator of the film to be arrested and jailed for offending Muslims. The Boston Globe’s Farah Stockman also suggested that those behind the film should be “held accountable” for violence that took place on the other side of the world.
Unfortunately, the Obama administration is not without fault in this regard. Alarmingly, it appears that the White House signaled to YouTube that it should consider taking down the video, which a YouTube spokesperson already said was “clearly within” YouTube’s guidelines for permissible content. And the Cairo embassy’s apologetic statement about the video, issued prior to the violence, is not beyond criticism. Mitt Romney could have issued an honest defense of the United States’ principle of free speech in the context of the embassy attacks. Instead, he characteristically distorted the record, mischaracterizing Obama’s position and the timeline of events for political gain.
Christopher Stevens fought and died for what he called a “free, democratic, prosperous Libya.” The free Libya Stevens imagined would undoubtedly have afforded its citizens the right to speek freely. We can best honor his memory by affirming our commitment to freedom of expression, not shrinking from it.