The struggle over blasphemy is a part of the larger debate on the future of democracy in the Arab world and beyond, writes Arch Puddington Vice President for Research at Freedom House.
The amateur anti-Islamic video that provoked the recent violent anti-American protests has not only “reignited efforts to enact global legislation that would penalize insults to religion,” but also prompted “an epidemic wave of hypocrisy,” he argues:
First, there is Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who called for recognizing “Islamophobia as a crime against humanity”…… Yet even as he speaks dismissively of “hiding behind the excuse of freedom of expression,” Erdogan presides over a government that is a world leader in the jailing of journalists.
Then there is Hassan Nasrallah (above), the political and spiritual leader of Hezbollah. In a televised speech to his followers in Lebanon, Nasrallah declared: “Those who should be held accountable, punished, prosecuted, and boycotted are those who are directly responsible for this film and those who stand behind them and those who support and protect them, primarily the United States of America.” But while Nasrallah demands punishment for those who have insulted Islam, he has publicly and repeatedly pledged solidarity with Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, a man responsible for the violent deaths of up to 20,000 Muslims.
The available evidence confirms that the violent anti-American protests were not a “spontaneous reaction” to the 14-minute video, but were pre-organized, writes Yarim-Agaev, a former Soviet dissident:
The film, “Innocence of Muslims,” was available on YouTube for a long time without attracting any attention. Two days before the riots, the film was broadcast in Arabic on the Salafi Egyptian television channel Al-Nas. Several popular preachers on other conservative Islamic satellite channels called upon people to turn out Tuesday at the U.S. Embassy in Egypt. If this was not organization, what was it?
“Protests orchestrated on the pretext of slights and offenses against Islam have been part of Islamist strategy for decades,” says Husain Haqqani, professor of international relations at Boston University and senior fellow at the Hudson Institute.
The debate over freedom of expression “is a distraction from what is really going on,” he contends.
“It ignores the political intent of Islamists for whom every perceived affront to Islam is an opportunity to exploit a wedge issue for their own empowerment,” writes Husain Haqqani, Pakistan’s ambassador to the U.S. from 2008-11:
Islamists almost by definition have a vested interest in continuously fanning the flames of Muslim victimhood. For Islamists, wrath against the West is the basis for their claim to the support of Muslim masses, taking attention away from societal political and economic failures. For example, the 57 member states of the Organization of Islamic Conference account for one-fifth of the world’s population but their combined gross domestic product is less than 7% of global output—a harsh reality for which Islamists offer no solution.
“The Arab world is at an important crossroads. It is time to abandon this false narrative” of a Western war against Islam, says a former radical Islamist.
Across much of the Muslim world, the democratic West is “viewed through a hodgepodge of conspiracy theories, half-truths and a selective reading of history,” writes Ed Husain, a senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, and author of The Islamist:
When I met Muhammad Mahdi Akef, the influential former leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, in April 2011, he insisted that Al Qaeda was a figment of the Western imagination. The idea that it doesn’t exist, that the United States attacked itself, is buttressed by preachers in mosques, on satellite television channels and in glossy Arabic books.
When I watch Al Jazeera Arabic I am stunned by unchallenged references in talk show interviews to the “American Zionist plan” or “the American enemy” or the “ally of the Zionist entity.” Attacking the United States has become part of the political culture in much of the Middle East.
If hypocrisy is a common feature of many reactions to the crisis, “so is the limp response of democratic political leaders,” writes Puddington. “In this regard, President Obama’s relatively straightforward defense of freedom of expression at the United Nations stands as one of the less apologetic affirmations of the values of freedom in the face of pressure from the advocates of censorship.”
But the overly apologetic response of some Western leaders is explained by a failure to understand the lessons of history and the nature of ideologically-driven political actors, says Yarim-Agaev, a distinguished visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution.
“Any suggestion of compromise or acceptance of the legitimacy of your enemy’s ideology is a sign of your weakness—which only provokes further attacks,” he contends:
It is not surprising that America’s leaders are not proficient in the strategies and tactics of ideological warfare. Lessons learned from communism are now long forgotten, and are certainly not taught to current U.S. politicians. ……..We did not start wars with communism, Nazism or Islamism. They were imposed upon us. Those ideologies thrive on confrontation with the free world. Today we must revisit Kristallnacht, the Holocaust and the Cold War, to recollect our successful experience of dealing with those virulent ideologies.
“The struggle over blasphemy is a part of the larger debate on the future of democracy, both in the Arab world and beyond,” Puddington argues on the Freedom House blog:
Those who stand firm behind freedom of expression are not advocating offensive speech, but the fundamental right of all human beings to decide for themselves what speech to endorse, denounce, dismiss, or ignore. This right applies not just to YouTube videos, but also to the words of political leaders. And that is the true reason why many leaders are so eager to restrict it.