Tolerating Hate Muslim Protests Show Limits of Free Speech
Part 2: The Target of Fury
The following Monday, Ayman al-Zawahiri, the head of al-Qaida, called on all Muslims, but particularly all Libyans, to mark the anniversary of Sept. 11 by taking revenge on the Americans for the death of Abu Yahya al-Libi. In June, a US drone had killed al-Libi, the second-highest ranking al-Qaida leader, in Pakistan.
Then on Tuesday, on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, riots erupted in front of the US Embassy in Cairo: Demonstrators threw stones at police, who responded with tear gas. By Friday evening, over 220 people had been injured.
In Yemen, hundreds of rioters stormed the American embassy in the capital Sana'a. Guards fired into the crowd and four people reportedly died.
And 5,000 demonstrators marched on the German and British embassies in Sudan on Friday. They lit fires, jeered and danced as black clouds of smoke rose into the air. The Muslims tore down the German flag and replaced it with the Islamic black banner.
'Insult to Islam'
The German diplomats had been warned and had retreated to safety in time. Indeed, it was no coincidence that they were the target of the protesters' fury. Sudanese Foreign Minister Ali Ahmed Karti had criticized German Chancellor Angela Merkel, claiming that she had allowed an anti-Islamic demonstration in front of the German parliament building, the Reichstag. "The German chancellor unfortunately welcomed this insult to Islam, and thus violated the principles of religious coexistence," he said. In reality, a Berlin court had approved a demonstration by the right-wing initiative Pro Deutschland, albeit elsewhere in Berlin, where caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad were displayed. The group is now also showing the incendiary video on its website.
The attack on the US Consulate in the Libyan city of Benghazi came in many ways as a shock to the superpower: It was the first time since 1979 that a US ambassador had died in an attack. Not only that, but the ambassador, Chris Stevens, was credited with helping the Libyan rebels to liberate Benghazi from Gadhafi's troops. The revolution might have taken a different course without him. One of his colleagues called him the "most unknown hero."
By Friday evening, it was still unknown exactly how and where Stevens died, but it was most probably from smoke inhalation. There is a photo of Stevens taken on the night of the attack; his T-shirt is smeared with soot and a man is dragging him across the floor. It looks as if he is being evacuated.
It is also still unclear who led the attack. Was it an outraged mob, infiltrated by radical Islamists? Or was it members of al-Qaida who had planned the attack as an act of revenge? The first to express this suspicion was London-based Libyan Noman Benotman, a former follower of Osama bin Laden who left the terror group 10 years ago and is now an analyst at Quilliam, a London-based think tank that aims to challenge extremism. According to Benotman, the attack was carried out by nearly 20 fighters, armed with RPG-7 rocket-propelled grenade launchers, and the onslaught came in two waves.
The ambassador's death has cast Libya into a deep crisis. A day after the attack, the Libyan National Congress elected a new prime minister, Mustafa Abu Shaghur. The events of the past few days will probably overshadow the fact that Abu Shaghur, a technocrat, has clearly positioned himself in opposition to the Islamists.
Last Wednesday, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton went to great lengths to placate Muslims. "The United States government had absolutely nothing to do with this video," she said, adding "to us, for me personally, this video is disgusting and reprehensible."
Clinton appeared strangely helpless as pictures of the riots were broadcast on TV channels across America. She could have said that freedom of speech also has its limits in the US, and that those who are responsible will be brought to justice -- just as US President Barack Obama vowed to bring the ambassador's killers in Benghazi to justice.
On the evening of the first riots, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney allowed himself to indulge in some hasty criticism of the Obama administration. He called its behavior "disgraceful," and said that Obama should defend "American values." Romney was referring to a statement released by the US Embassy in Cairo, which condemns the film as the work of "misguided individuals (seeking) to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims."
By then, a debate on freedom and freedom of speech had clearly begun. But Romney disqualified himself from that debate by misusing the tragic situation as ammunition for election campaign attacks.
The West's Dilemma
Of course, like Obama, Clinton is caught in the dilemma of the West, where even hatemongers are allowed to voice their opinions. She can't even force Google to remove the video from its YouTube platform. Company managers blocked it in Libya and Egypt, but otherwise it does not break the site's rules.
Laws do exist in some countries that make blasphemy and incitement to racial hatred a crime, but little of this legislation is truly effective. In the US, right-wing extremists can even deny the Holocaust, something that is illegal in Germany.
But is it right to uphold the freedom of men like Nakoula, who then abuse it? Is that the price of freedom? Or should one defend Nakoula's freedom of speech for the very reason that most people find his actions repugnant, namely because it would demonstrate Western values particularly clearly? Doesn't this place the West in ideological proximity to intractable Islamists, who would also start a war over a picture of Muhammad with a donkey?
An easy answer for many politicians is that words don't kill, and pictures don't slay anyone. They would say that freedom of speech only ends when violence enters the picture.
But on the YouTube forum under the notorious film, a user writing under the pseudonym "Khalidbaby" writes that some Americans think that they have the freedom to do whatever they want, but freedom doesn't relieve you of responsibility for your actions.
Reacting to Provocation
The bitter debate over the circumcision of Jewish and Muslim boys in Germany highlights the things that religious people can find just as abhorrent as violence. Even some German Jews feel that the foreskin has such importance as a symbol of their belief that they are seriously considering leaving Germany.
And the speed with which some Muslims react to provocations with violence has been common knowledge since the publication of the Muhammad caricatures. Extremists in the Middle East and the West are familiar with the sore points. Among Muslims, self-declared jihadists -- including offshoots of the al-Qaida network -- are fomenting the unrest.
The walls of the US Embassy in Cairo now bear slogans that reflect their language: "Oh Obama, we are all Osama's grandchildren," has been spray-painted there. And, of course, it didn't take long for caricatures to emerge in Egypt that portrayed the US president as a Zionist puppet. There were also the familiar drawings of an octopus with the Star of David beneath the flag of Saudi Arabia and the black flag of the Islamists and al-Qaida bearing the statement: "There is no God but God, and Muhammad is his prophet."
The protesters included well-known Islamists such as a brother of al-Qaida head al-Zawahiri and a number of sons of the blind Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman, who is serving a prison sentence in the US after being convicted of seditious conspiracy in connection with the first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993.
Wherever religious fanatics are waiting for the right occasion, all it takes is a spark: Last month, Christians in Pakistan had to flee their homes in a poor neighborhood of Islamabad after a mentally impaired girl was suspected of burning pages of the Koran. Preachers of hatred called for revenge.
- Part 1: Muslim Protests Show Limits of Free Speech
- Part 2: The Target of Fury
- Part 3: Islamists in Power