Thursday, September 13, 2012

Violence in Egypt and Libya: Free Speech and Muslims

I woke up yesterday to news that American embassies in Libya and Egypt had been stormed. In Libya, the American ambassador and at least three other Americans had been killed. Wow. What could have caused this? Were we at war? What set it off? Did we need to put our button men on the street?

I was not surprised to learn that this unbelievably awful film, allegedly by a right-wing American-Israeli filmmaker that no one seems to have heard of, had somehow popped up on some people's radar screens. There is a large mostly American and European neo-conservative cottage industry of print and visual media that likes to sell the idea of a clash of civilizations between the Judeo-Christian West and the Islamic East. In this view Muslims are irretrievably backwards, violent, women-hating, cousin-banging religious nuts who can't process that it's no longer the 7th century. Of course from this mindset it is essential that we stand with the State of Israel and support them in their desperate attempt to steal the rest of Palestine for Jewish only settlement struggle against these fanatics. It is also rather important for these ideologues to emphasize the vile, violent, expansionary and reactionary aspects of Islam while glossing over the fact that historically, European Christians weren't exactly known for tolerance of Jews.

This "clash of civilizations" idea wouldn't gain much traction were there indeed not plenty of Muslims ready, eager and willing to play their part. I mean is this stupid or what? Someone (and we don't really know who) makes an ineptly offensive film insulting Muhammad and depicting Muslims as dumb, violent brutes. Outraged Muslims take to the streets to denounce the film and commit dumb brutish acts, including the murder of an American ambassador. I guess some Egyptians and Libyans must not be familiar with the concept of getting played. I guess SOMEONE proved their point. Some Muslims should get it through their skulls that burning things, rioting and shooting people any time someone expresses an opinion you don't like is so 14th century. What happened to boycotts, peaceful protests, writing a book attacking your critics or trying to bring down someone's career behind the scenes?

Free speech in this country still includes the right to satirize, mock or even crudely insult people, ideologies or concepts you don't like, including religion. Remember The Life of Brian? Pi$$ Christ? The Last Temptation of Christ? Do you also remember the violent American Christian protests where they ran amok and started burning things? No? Me neither. Why is it that blasphemy is still a real concept for some people? Honestly I think all religions are equally valid and equally silly. I think it is is just as ridiculous to believe that God talked to you through a burning bush and told you he loved you and yours more than anyone else as it is to believe that God is going to send you to hell for eternity unless you worship him and think he's three beings in one as it is to believe that God sent a prophet who told anyone who believed in him that they were thus entitled to convert people by the sword. We should remember that Arabic is spoken in Africa for many of the same reasons that English, French and Spanish are spoken in the Americas: invasion, conquest, enslavement and settlement. No religion's metaphorical hands are clean. Everyone has awful deeds in their past.

But if I'm the State Department, I really don't care that the people outside my embassy have been lied to and manipulated. I really don't care that their little feelings have been hurt by someone calling them names and making fun of their religion. Anyone attacking my embassy or consulate is going to get two in the head. The embassy is sovereign territory. You don't want other nations or organizations to get the idea that they can just roll up to your embassy and do what they like. If the embassy is attacked it may well be overrun but there ought to be a pile of dead attackers laying on the ground when all is over. Tragically there apparently wasn't the US protection that there should have been at the Benghazi consulate but it is important to note that Libyan forces fought the attackers, along with an American rescue mission.  So we can't say that all Libyans were involved with this or even that the attacks had popular support. We just don't know. By many accounts the consulate attack was simply too well organized and armed to have been the work of spontaneous rioters. Even in Libya I doubt everyone has quick access to mortars and rockets or the skill to coordinate volleys. So this is a bit curious don't you think?
This is my house. I will not allow violence against this house.
We simply can not allow violent people of any faith to enforce a rioter's veto over speech that they do not like. That takes us back to the days where blasphemy and heresy were crimes punishable by imprisonment, torture and death. If people do not like religious criticism or ridicule, unfair or not, their option is to ignore it or to respond in kind. I am an atheist. I have doubts that Muhammad existed but if he did I don't think that God or angels were talking to him. Portions of the Qu'ran or Bible or Torah are laughably ridiculous. If reading that fills a true believer with insensate rage, that's too freaking bad.

Post Enlightenment we have the right to disdain religion. In some majority Muslim countries, that's not necessarily the case. Fortunately several American Muslims are pointing out the benefits and primacy of free speech. Hopefully that idea will spread across the world. Because if a small minority of crazy Muslims goes berserk every time someone "blasphemes", more people in majority non-Muslim nations will start to ask some unpleasant questions about the costs and benefits of Muslim immigration. And that falls right into the "clash of civilizations" meme that the Right is pushing. I think it is time to stop any moves towards any sort of international blasphemy standard. I don't want any sort of internal American limitations on free speech for religious sensibilities.
This is a political movie," said Bacile. "The US lost a lot of money and a lot of people in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but we're fighting with ideas."
Bacile, a California property developer who identifies himself as an Israeli Jew, said he believed the movie would help his native land by exposing Islam's flaws to the world.
"Islam is a cancer, period," he said repeatedly.
The two-hour movie, Innocence of Muslims, cost $5m (£3.1m) to make and was financed with the help of more than 100 Jewish donors, said Bacile, who wrote and directed it.
The film claims Muhammad was a fraud. An English-language 13-minute trailer on YouTube shows an amateur cast performing a wooden dialogue of insults disguised as revelations about Muhammad, whose obedient followers are presented as a cadre of goons.
It depicts Muhammad as a feckless philanderer who approved of child sexual abuse.
We should be VERY wary of provocateurs like Bacile, if that is indeed his real name..  Not only are his name and identity in question but an actress now claims that the film was edited post production to include insults about Muhammad. "Bacile" may have been a Coptic Christian who was upset about Muslim violence against his co-religionists and linked up with anti-Muslim people in the US and elsewhere to promote his film. If I were really really conspiracy minded I would wonder if this is indeed some sort of attempt to influence the US election by either making the US president look weak or make him feel constrained to finally give the greenlight for a US attack on Iran. But if that were the case Romney's stupid response to events frittered away an opportunity to look Presidential while making even some other Republicans question his decorum.
We don't have to excuse or explain away the submoronic responses of some Egyptians and Libyans to realize there are some right-wingers who have some very real reasons for wanting to gin up trouble between the US and the Islamic world. They believe in a religious war and they want one. Some of these folks are bigots who seek to deny American Muslims  the rights they themselves enjoy and carve out exceptions to free speech that offends them while hypocritically wanting to keep the right to offend others. These people should not be silenced for that would be wrong. But we don't have to accept their world view either.

The attacks in Libya and Egypt also show why I tend to be against foreign interventions and an activist neo-con foreign policy. We end up making more enemies and/or helping people that really don't like us very much. As far as Libya goes, some Russians evidently could not resist saying "We told you so".
Yevgeny Y. Satanovsky, president of the Institute of the Middle East in Moscow, said American leaders should not expect “one word of sympathy” from their Russian counterparts. 
“It is a tragedy to the family of the poor ambassador, but his blood is on the hands of Hillary Clinton personally and Barack Obama personally,” Mr. Satanovsky said. He said Russian warnings against intervention in the Middle East came from the bitter experience of the Soviets in Afghanistan.
“They lynched Qaddafi — do you really think they will be thankful to you?” he said. “They use stupid white people from a big rich and stupid country which they really hate.” 

1) Do you think the timing of this has anything to do with the American election?

2) Do you support limitations on speech that insults religion?

3) Did you or do you think the Libyan intervention was a wise decision?

4) How can the US avoid being blamed for things it had nothing to do with?

5) How did the protesters even find out about this film?

6) Do you believe in a "clash of civilizations"?

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