Side with reason, back the West
It is tempting to draw parallels between the Salman Rushdie case and the current uproar over an anti-Islamic internet video. But despite a co-incidence of timing – the protests coincided with the publication of Joseph Anton, Rushdie’s memoir of his years in hiding – the differences between the two cases far outweigh the parallels.
In Rushdie’s case, we are dealing with a work of literature, written by a Muslim, which made references to the life of the Prophet but did not actively seek to offend other Muslims. To this day, Rushdie maintains that there was nothing blasphemous about the book and argues that nearly all of those who protested against The Satanic Verses had never even read the book so how would they know if it was offensive or blasphemous?
But in this case, the situation is very different. The video is said (by those who have seen it – I have not) to have no redeeming qualities whatsoever. It has no artistic merit. It is crude. It is hate-filled. And the film-maker’s (I use the term loosely) intent was to portray Islam in a negative light.
All this makes it very different from the Rushdie book. Societies with laws that forbid hate speech or communal or ethnic slurs have a legal right to take action against the man who made the video and to prevent its dissemination. And indeed, many have.
In the US, the legal rights of the film-maker are protected by the Constitution. The US government can disown the video, can condemn the man who made it etc. But it is not clear how far it can go in prosecuting him. This Constitutional protection is not a new phenomenon: America is supposed to allow the right of freedom of speech (subject to the usual qualifications about national security, defamation, “fire in a crowded theatre” etc.) to everyone. No matter how you interpret the US Constitution, no fair and reasonable person can be left in any doubt that the film-maker acted in his individual capacity; that he did not have the support of the US government; and that many important and influential figures in the US political system have denounced him.
Nor can it be denied that many otherwise liberal countries have accepted that the video falls into the category of hate-speech and have blocked access to it (to the extent possible) on the internet. Clearly there is no conspiracy by Western governments to defame the Prophet or to denigrate Islam.
How then should any sensible person – Muslim or of any other faith – react to this crude video? Most of us know the answer to that one: we should ignore it. There will always be lunatics and cranks who will insult the world’s great religions. Technology has now made it possible for these insults to reach more people than they could have two decades ago. But technology has also made it more difficult to erase such insults. Once something gets on the internet, it is virtually impossible to pull it off.
If is often difficult – even with the best intentions – to ignore something if it is out there staring you in the face. But, in the case of this video, that is hardly the case. It is just one of millions of videos posted on the net every year. Nobody had made much of it till the protests began. And even now, it is hard to find. So, whatever else it is, the video is hardly in your face.
Nor is it possible to argue that the video seriously damages Islam.
One of the world’s great religions cannot possible be harmed by the work of a solitary crank. To accept that this video has the power to injure Islam is to denigrate the religion, its history and its strength.
So, why then have there been so many global protests against it? The obvious answer – that the protesters have seen the video and are offended by it – is the wrong one. I doubt if even one per cent of those who are demonstrating against it have seen the video in question. They have absolutely no idea what it says – apart from the overblown and hysterical descriptions offered by the rabble-rousers.
But over the last couple of weeks, a less obvious answer has emerged.
The men who have organized the protests don’t really care about the film. For them it is only an excuse to launch the next battle in what they consider a holy war. They believe that Islam is the rising force in the world. And that its chief enemies are America and its Western liberal allies. So, each time there is any provocation, no matter how slight, they will magnify its import and portray it to the faithful as the latest attack launched by America against Islam.
Then, people who have no clue how great the actual provocation was, will run riot in the streets, attacking American targets, killing American officials (such as the ambassador in Libya) and reminding the US that it cannot withstand the might of Allah’s Islam.
It is nobody’s case that the vast majority of the world’s Muslims believe in all this nonsense about Islam-versus-America. But here’s the thing: enough Muslims buy into this world view for the slightest spark to set off the protests. And no matter how much the offending book/cartoon/video/article etc. is condemned, the violence will not stop. Because the so-called offence was never more than an excuse, a mere means of inciting the mob.
To some extent, America must share the blame for this mess. The basic problem with American foreign policy over the last three decades is that it has nurtured and nourished the monster of Islamic fundamentalism through a mixture of short-term selfish interest and sheer foolishness. When the Shah was toppled and a blood-thirsty Islamic regime took over Iran, Jimmy Carter offered words of welcome to the murderous Ayatollahs, and quickly disowned the Shah, a secular ruler who had long been an American ally.
When the US had to get Russia out of Afghanistan, the CIA invented the concept of the modern jehad encouraging Muslims from all over the world to travel to Afghanistan to fight the Russian infidels. A weakened (after the 1971 defeat) but still largely secular Pakistan, was used to fund this jehad. In the process, Islamic fundamentalism and violence found new converts in Pakistan. (When the Afghan war ended, Pakistan sent the unemployed mujahideen to Kashmir.)
And during the so-called Arab Spring (how hollow that phrase sounds now), the US cheered on the mobs as they ousted secular despots – not recognizing that sooner or later these despots would be replaced by Islamic despots. At the UN last week, Barrack Obama spoke movingly of the death of the US Ambassador to Libya, “in the city he had helped liberate”. Liberate? Really? That’s beginning to sound a bit lame now.
American foolishness and greed (the US supports the House of Saud which has financed the spread of Islamic extremism) may have led us to the current situation. But now that we are here, we need to recognize where we stand. For all its many faults, America still supports democracy and liberal values. The Islamic extremists, on the other hand, stand for no quality that you and I can possible admire.
In the war that the fundamentalists are fighting – through terror, riots and fatwas – against America and the West, liberals have no choice but to back the West. We may blame America for helping create this mess. But we cannot possibly support the Islamists.
Perhaps the fuss over the anti-Islamic video will die down once a few more American embassies and consulates are attacked. But even if it does, let’s not make the mistake of relaxing. The holy warriors are never idle. Each day, they scour the world’s media and the web for new ‘provocations’, for so-called insults to Islam.
Rest assured that they will find them. Or they will simply invent them. And the war will go on.