By Reyhan Guner
The provocative movie Innocence of Muslims, blamed for the death of American Ambassador to Libya J. Christopher Stevens and three embassy staff, has turned entirely into an ideological dispute. Notably, the protests in Pakistan held after Friday prayer that resulted in the deaths of 16 people, revealed the sensitivity of Muslims in the region toward the anti-Islamic expressions. On the one hand, the U.S. administration has condemned the attack and is still trying to convince Muslim countries about their respect of Islam and its traditions. On the other hand, the U.S. discusses the movie within the context of the First Amendment that prevents the government from taking steps that restrict freedom of speech on the basis of religious or ideological sensitivities, which is not acceptable for Muslims. Therefore, what freedom of expression means from the aspect of the U.S. and the Middle East countries should be questioned with respect to the social and political dynamics of those countries.
To start with the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, it covers the principle that:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
According to this principle, Obama as the U.S. President, members of Congress or any institution of the state are not supposed to intervene in the issue of Innocence of Muslims within the context of freedom of expression. Following his statement about how deeply in sorrow he is due to the deaths of four embassy staff, nevertheless, Obama has cautiously condemned the movie and explained that the “U.S. has been a nation that respects all faiths. We reject all efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others.” Hillary Clinton has condemned the movie as well, but highlighted that the U.S. government had absolutely nothing to do with the movie, implying the First Amendment. Therefore, the general attitude of the U.S. government can be summarized as not supporting insulting and exclusionist efforts against faiths, but also not restricting these kinds of efforts when they occur. Considering the the First Amendment as a drawback for Muslims and Islamic traditions, protestors are irritated with the U.S. government and demanding a legal response.
It is rather crucial to discuss what motivated the protests against the movie in many countries such as Egypt and Pakistan and led to the deaths of four American officials. According to Dalia Mogahed, Executive Director and Senior Analyst for the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies, Muslims in those countries have already had resentment against the United States, and so Innocence of Muslims became a trigger. Stating the political manipulation and the attitude of people just looking for a fight in the squares as the other reasons for the protests, Mogahed highlighted that the protests are far less violent than during the Danish cartoon crisis. It is also encouraging to see that Muslim protestors do not claim there is a holy war between Islam and the West or accuse the president of waging war against Islam as in past years. Therefore, protests are not on a large scale as exaggerated in the media. The conflict began when Muslims demanded a legal response from the president for blasphemous libel, which is misguided, because he cannot offer a legal response. Taking no legal responsibility, the U.S. government obliges Muslims to try what they have experience in and became successful with throughout the Arab Spring: protests.
And so, should outrage against values or massive protests containing violence be evaluated within the context of freedom of expression? According to Prof. Nilüfer Göle, a prominent Turkish scholar at the Graduate School of Social Sciences in Paris, none of these activities reflects the whole Western ideology or the Muslims around the world. Condemnations of the U.S. administration and the apology of Libya’s prime minister support Göle’s argument. She also contends that the confrontation between the West and Muslims that increased with globalization has some problematic dimensions. For instance, freedom of expression has become the excuse for extremely insulting behavior toward other values. Therefore, Western countries should reconsider the principle of freedom of expression and exclude it from being the part of hegemonic power, as it should not be an excuse for such outrages, Göle says.
Even though Western societies are more flexible in criticizing religion just like any other political issues, freedom of expression is fundamentally indicated as political speech rather than blasphemy in Islamic societies. Moreover, there are somewhat practical differences between the two societies in the due course of expressing their reactions. While Western societies prefer, for instance, critical and insulting writing or reviling an ideology through caricatures, Islamic societies of the Arab Spring prefer rising up and speaking out against what they see as injustice. Hence, the conflict begins where Western people define conflictive protests by Muslims as “Muslim rage,” while Muslims define the accusations of Western people as “hostility against Islam.”
This misperception toward each other grows gradually with the reciprocal denunciations of the parties that launch the vicious cycle. Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somali-Dutch writer who is known for her views critical of Islam, can be exemplified as one of the initiators of this cycle with her cover page for Newsweek, “Muslim Rage: How I Survived It, How We Can End It.” Evaluating the protests of Muslims under the header “last gasps of Islamic hate,” Ayaan increased the tension between the sides without any attempt to show sensitivity toward Muslims, which had already led to the protests. The more Western policy makers or media cover the insulting views against Islam, the more Muslims become intolerant and protest. Then, the pervasive protests in Muslim countries spontaneously prove the argument of Westerners: “Muslim outrage.”
In conclusion, what should be done to get rid of this vicious cycle? First of all, the First Amendment should be carefully interpreted again with respect to the ideological and religious sensitivity of people living in the U.S. and outside of it. Hence, it should not be manipulated to allow offense against other values. Second, politicians, writers and media elites should be aware that their approach and attitude to these kinds of sensitive issues are vital to overcome the vicious cycle, because the agenda and public opinion are shaped according to their statements. From this aspect, Obama and Clinton’s condemnations and the apology of the prime minister of Libya are encouraging for the upcoming period. Third, both Westerners and Muslims should take into consideration their different understandings toward freedom of expression before reacting. In addition, the criticism by Westerners of Islam and its traditions should not hurt the sensitivity of Muslims and the reactions of Muslims should not be at extreme levels that justify the claims of “Muslim outrage.” Last but not least, Muslims should prove their bona fides by condemning the radical groups that encourage these kinds of events for bloody attacks and murders.