Tolerating Hate Muslim Protests Show Limits of Free Speech
Part 3: Islamists in Power
The first person to exploit the faith so effectively was probably Iran's late leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. In 1989, his victim was Indian-born British author Salman Rushdie. In his book "The Satanic Verses," Rushdie offended the honor of the Prophet -- at least, in the eyes of many Muslims -- because he had a number of prostitutes appear in his work who were named after Muhammad's wives. The Ayatollah's fatwa sparked violence around the world and, even to this day, there is a price on Rushdie's head worth millions.
Rushdie was able to hide from Islamist killers for years, but Dutch artist Theo van Gogh had to pay with his life for daring to tackle the topic of the Koran. His short film "Submission," which was released sixteen years after the "The Satanic Verses," shows a naked Muslim woman with texts from the Koran about chastity and subservience written on her body.
The Fight for Freedom
Two months later, in November 2004, a Dutchman with Moroccan roots shot and killed the filmmaker. Van Gogh knew what he was setting off. He wanted a provocation; he wanted to fight for the freedom of artistic expression, using the most powerful weapon that he possessed.
One year later, the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten triggered the biggest religious riots to date. Between Asia and Africa, 150 people died after the newspaper printed 12 caricatures of the Prophet. This included a drawing by illustrator Kurt Westergaard that showed Muhammad wearing a bomb with a lighted fuse in his turban. Westergaard barely escaped an attempt on his life in early 2010.
Only a few months prior to the caricature controversy, American soldiers in the high-security prison at Guantanamo had humiliated their Muslim prisoners. A US soldier splashed urine on a Koran. Afterwards, Muslims took to the streets in Northern Africa, Pakistan and Indonesia.
And in February of this year, US soldiers at the Bagram airbase in Afghanistan inadvertently burned dozens of copies of the Koran. Forty-one people died in the ensuing demonstrations, even though President Obama had made a public apology to his Afghan counterpart Hamid Karzai.
This time the political damage will be far greater. The Arab Spring may have swept dictators from power, but a video like the one from Los Angeles can give extremists in these fragile countries a boost in support that makes them a force to be reckoned with.
In Libya there are two ideologically divergent groups, which are virtually fighting a territorial feud. Some tribes of eastern Libya are more fundamentalist than those in northwestern Libya. The tribes in Benghazi see it as a problem that the relatively secular forces from Tripoli have won the election. This tends to reaffirm the balance of power that existed under Gadhafi. On the other hand, the winners of the election know that it doesn't take much to provoke their brothers in the eastern part of the country.
Egypt is even more important, though. What's at stake here is peace with Israel and a collapsing economy in a country that the US already annually supported with millions of dollars during Mubarak's rule. Now that Mohammed Morsi has been elected as the country's new president, the question is what direction his political party, the Muslim Brotherhood, will take in the future.
In Egypt the radical Salafists are vying for power with the less radical Muslim Brotherhood. After being buoyed by their surprisingly good results in the 2011/12 parliamentary elections, the Salafists are disappointed with the election of Morsi, whom they see as too moderate.
Accommodating the Radicals
And Morsi's team knows that the Muslim Brotherhood has very little time to legitimize its hold on power in Egypt: It has to succeed in creating security and at least the prospect of future prosperity. The Salafists don't care about either of those things -- and therein lies the danger.
Consequently, in both Libya and Egypt, there are two fears: the fear that the moderates will assume power, and the fear that the radicals will drift into obscurity.
Morsi has to try to accommodate the radical Islamists, and this explains his vacillations over the past week. First, he said nothing about the riots for 24 hours. Then he guaranteed his people the "freedom to protest," but said that violence against embassies would be punished.
But after the attacks on the US Embassy, Morsi said nothing for quite some time, even though Washington is generously supporting the country. Instead, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, a Qatar-based TV preacher and prominent intellectual leader within the Muslim Brotherhood, is now calling for additional "demonstrations of Islamic rage."
It all boils down to who can present themselves as the best defender of the Prophet's honor -- and it's a game that the radicals can easily win. In Cairo, Tunis and Sana'a, it was always the most radical fundamentalists who marched on US institutions. For many years, the Salafists were excluded from the political arena. But for the past eight months, since the Egyptian parliamentary elections, the Salafist Al-Nour Party ("Party of the Light") has been an actor in parliamentary politics.
'We Don't Take Any Responsibility'
The film will also impact politics in the West: Politicians in the US and Europe can feel justified in their concerns that the liberation of the Arab nations has also liberated the Islamists. The message from the dictators had always been the following: We may not be democracies, but we are a bulwark against the jihadists.
Ironically, though, the Muslim faith was for decades the only sphere that the dictators could not completely control. This may have contributed to Islam's political radicalization. Whatever now happens is thus also part of the heritage of these dictatorships -- even many months after they were overthrown.
Radical Islamists killed Ambassador Stevens in Benghazi. But he also died for the freedom of the Christian agitators.
"We don't feel responsible," says radical Christian preacher Terry Jones. "We regret, of course, that somebody died. But we don't take any responsibility for that. We have merely exercised our right to freedom of speech. That right is only worth something if you can say things that people don't like."
REPORTED BY LAZAR BACKOVIC, DIETER BEDNARZ, CLEMENS HÖGES, MARC HUJER, JULIANE VON MITTELSTAEDT, CHRISTOPH REUTER, MARCEL ROSENBACH, ALEXANDER SMOLTCZYK AND BERNHARD ZAND
Translated from the German by Paul Cohen
- Part 1: Muslim Protests Show Limits of Free Speech
- Part 2: The Target of Fury
- Part 3: Islamists in Power