Shadia Drury’s two-part column “The Decay of American Democracy,” Part I of which appeared in the October/November issue, will be concluded in a future issue – Eds.
The display of Muslim rage in over twenty countries that was triggered by an American-made video insulting the prophet Muhammad has once again turned the conflict between religion and freedom of speech into an international crisis. The inadequacy of the Republican, as well as the Democratic, responses to the crisis has its source in the American inclination to see the world as its own domain and not to distinguish between domestic and foreign policy. The conflation of these two domains is dangerous and incendiary for reasons that I will explain.
Republican Presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s reaction was a classic bullish American approach to foreign policy. Romney treated the Muslim rage as an assault on a fundamental American value—freedom of expression. He vowed to defend American values and the American way of life at home and around the world. Hawkish Republicans regard the world in terms of a “clash of civilizations” where we either defend “our values” around the world, or we lose our freedom and “our way of life”—as if nations with different values could not coexist on the same planet.
Romney’s reaction is paradigmatic of the colossal failure of the imagination from which the West has so often suffered. So many people in the West simply cannot imagine what it is like to live in a country like Iraq or Afghanistan that has been devastated by war for years, with tens of thousands killed and millions displaced, living in makeshift refugee camps without a future. They can’t imagine what it is like for people to have finally rid themselves of British colonialism only to be subject to the brutal dictatorships propped up by the United States. They can’t imagine what it is like to live on less than one dollar a day because the policies of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank have made the rich richer and the poor even poorer. They can’t imagine what it is like to live under the constant din of American drones and the lethal missiles they dispense without warning. They can’t imagine what it is like to be so constantly terrorized that you can’t let your children play outside, go to school, or attend a wedding, a feast, or a gathering of any sort. Then the very people who have caused all that horror and hardship, the very people who have raped the resources of your country and left you more destitute than ever, make a point of insulting your religion and your prophet. The anti-prophet video was akin to lighting a match in a tinderbox. By itself, the video would not have produced such a violent reaction for no one would have been interested in translating or disseminating it.
Many commentators have pointed out that the violence was committed by extremists and that their actions were not condoned by the majority. In fact, the violence was officially denounced by the Mufti of Cairo, who has about as much authority as anyone can have in this un-hierarchical religion. Nevertheless, we should not be blind to the fact that the sentiments of the extremists are widely shared in the Muslim world. American conduct in the region is unpopular, inept, and immoral. Insulting videos simply add fuel to the fire.
President Barack Obama’s response was not much better than Romney’s. At first, his response was directed to the terrorist attack on the American embassy in Libya—a terrorist attack that was confused with the protests over the anti-prophet video. Obama’s reaction seemed reasonable: “We will bring those who killed our fellow Americans to justice. No act of terrorism will go unpunished.” Unlike his predecessor, Obama sounded as if he was prepared to treat terrorism as a criminal act under international law. But that was not the case; his actions spoke louder than words. He quickly moved drones and warships into the region with the express purpose of finding, capturing, or assassinating those who might be responsible for killing the Libyan ambassador and his colleagues. The result will be more extrajudicial killings that can only augment hatred and contempt for the lawlessness that American conduct in the world invites.
Obama went on to defend American diplomats as people who people who further the “interests and values” of the United States around the world, as if interests and values go hand in hand and never clash—a fantasy that Obama shares with George W. Bush. In reality, nations, like individuals, often have to choose between their values and their interests. Sometimes, it is worth sacrificing one’s interests to preserve one’s values, without which one stands for nothing.
Obama explained to the world why America was an exceptional nation: it is a nation bound together not by a tribe or a religion, but by a creed or a set of values that are defended at home and around the world by American diplomats and the American military. He made sure to add that these values were not just American values, but universal values to which the whole world aspires. The idea that there is only one set of values to which all human beings aspire means that those who refuse to embrace these values must be either primitive, stupid, evil, or all of the above. Every nation defends its values at home, but only a nation with global imperial aspirations–a nation that believes its values are the only values to which humanity aspires–can dream of defending them around the world. This American conceit invites endless wars, as American history testifies. In the final analysis, Obama’s response was as arrogant as Romney’s and shared a barely veiled undercurrent of imperial hubris.
Hillary Clinton’s response was more diplomatic and more conciliatory. Knowing that there was no plan to change American foreign policy, she apologized. She explained to the Muslim world that the American government had nothing to do with the video. She declared that “America’s commitment to religious tolerance goes back to the beginning of our history…. We have the greatest respect for people of faith…. This video is disgusting and reprehensible. It is intended to denigrate a great religion and to provoke rage.” At the same time, she rightly denounced the violence and the killing as absolutely unacceptable. Clinton struck the right note on foreign policy, but her approach to the conflict between religion and freedom of speech on the domestic front is a dangerous slippery slope. Does the respect for people of faith preclude the criticism or mockery of religion at home? It is necessary to emphasize the divide between foreign and domestic policy.
Americans should defend freedom of speech at home, where that is proving to be hard enough. Had it been restricted to domestic policy, Romney’s desire to defend freedom of speech would have been commendable, especially because it was spoken by a member of the Mormon Church, a religion that has long been on the receiving end of suspicion and ridicule. Romney showed himself to be an American first and a Mormon second. This is why he deserved the support of those who understand that you cannot have freedom of thought and speech while being totally safe from exposure to ideas that insult your sacred sensibilities. So he must have found it hard to believe that none of his fellow Republicans stood by him in defending this iconic American value. Nor were they prevented from doing so for diplomatic reasons. The real reason escaped Romney. He seemed oblivious to the religious fundamentalism that has engulfed his party. The religious zealots in his party are no different from the zealots in the Muslim world. Like Muslim radicals, they have no appetite to see thei
r religion questioned, mocked, or insulted. So, Romney’s spirited rejection of Muslim intolerance was unwittingly a rebuke to the intolerance of the fundamentalists who dominate his own GOP. Like the newly elected president of Egypt, Mohamed Morsi, they would like the president of the United States to make sure that religious sensibilities are not insulted—as if this could be done without destroying freedom altogether.
Those who live in free societies must give up the luxury of not having their religion criticized or mocked. In a free society, everyone’s religion is fair game. Muslims who immigrate to Western countries had better learn this lesson quickly. They must learn that the intellectual and comic assaults on religion make it healthier than it would be otherwise. No religion is free from absurdities that lend themselves to riotous mockery and devastating criticism. When religious people accept the laughable aspects of their religion, they will avoid taking it literally. In other words, they will avoid the error of being fundamentalists. They will be more inclined to distance themselves from the evil and embrace only the good in their religion.
Moreover, the public mockery of religion provides opportunities that must be seized by intelligent people of goodwill who are genuinely interested in mutual understanding. A prophet who has a large harem should expect to be accused of being a womanizer. A prophet who marries a nine-year-old should expect to be accused of pedophilia. Islamic scholars should answer some of these questions in public or popular forums. They should explain the historical circumstances under which Muhammad acquired his harem, including the nine-year-old Aisha. They should point out that by all accounts Aisha was not an abused child. She grew up to be a very strong and outspoken woman who loved Muhammad passionately. In writing a biography of Muhammad, Karen Armstrong claimed that she also fell in love with him. What is it about this man that has cast such spells for good or ill? The devout must learn not to be offended by these questions as disrespectful. Too much respect for religion is bound to backfire. Far from promoting mutual respect and forbearance, it is likely to promote mutual hatred and contempt.
These are lessons that the Muslim world has not yet learned. Nor is it the business of the West to teach them these lessons. Islam has managed to identify itself with anticolonialism. This partly explains why so many young women wear the hijab when their mothers did not. But as Islam gains political power in the wake of the Arab Spring, its repressive character will come into full view. This is already happening. The fight over freedom of speech is going on within the Muslim world, as the work of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Irshad Manji, Wafa Sultan, and other brave women testifies. The West should let them have their own fight over this issue without sullying the cause of freedom with American imperialism.
Shadia Drury is Canada Research Chair at the University of Regina in Canada. Her most recent book is Aquinas and Modernity (Rowman & Littlefield, 2008). She is currently working on a book titled Chauvinism of the West.