Islamophobia as free speech -- a notion that escapes many Muslims
Righteous condemnation erupted worldwide Wednesday after an anti-Islam video incited mobs in Libya and Egypt and fed into the radical Islamic narrative that the United States is waging war against Muslims.
Religious and political leaders denounced the attacks on U.S. diplomatic venues that killed four Americans in Benghazi, Libya, and inflicted new strains on Washington's relations with the neophyte leadership of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi. They also slammed the Islamophobic fringe behind the video they said was clearly crafted to outrage Muslims and fuel the fires of a global holy war driven by hate-filled extremists.
The provocative video and the incendiary response it triggered have also raised fears of further attacks on U.S. targets overseas, especially after Friday prayers at mosques throughout the Muslim world, warn Middle East watchers. Unless government leaders and clerics of all faiths act to tamp down the flames lit by extremists, the analysts say, exaggerated visions of a holy war could become a reality in countries just emerging from authoritarian rule and unfamiliar with Americans' broad definitions of free speech and artistic expression.
"Like anywhere else, there are informed, educated people who have traveled and have experiences with other cultures who are able to make a differentiation. That applies increasingly to the middle classes of the region, to the youth of the region who are plugged into social media," said Frederic Wehrey, a senior associate with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and frequent visitor to Libya.
"That said," he added, "there are people for whom this event [the video] confirms a long-standing prejudice and belief that no amount of education and contact can change and that is not rooted in anything the United States does."
As most Egyptians and Libyans came of age under governments that controlled the press, broadcast and film, Wehrey said, "it's hard for them to disaggregate the fringe from official media." Or to distinguish between the handful of Christian zealots believed to be behind the video and the multitudes of more moderate adherents to faiths other than Islam.
Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood leader elected Egyptian head of state after the fall of the 30-year autocracy of Hosni Mubarak, called on the United States on Wednesday to prosecute the makers of the purported film, "Innocence of Muslims," from which a 14-minute trailer posted on YouTube was said to be taken. The actual film has yet to surface.
The video clips, which depict the Islamic prophet Muhammad as a savage and a sexual deviant, set off a heated debate in the United States about the intersection of the 1st Amendment right to free expression and the dangerous consequences of hate speech and religious intolerance.
Among Egyptians and Libyans only recently liberated from authoritarian rule, the idea that Americans are free to express even outrageously distorted views "is really not understood at all," said Isobel Coleman, a U.S. foreign policy expert at the Council on Foreign Relations.
"Reflect on how well Americans understand, when they are reading about extremists overseas, how representative that is of those societies. The answer is that it is not well understood at all," said Coleman. "The fact that Morsi is calling for prosecuting the makers of the film indicates he really doesn't understand how our system works or that he is playing this naively."
Coleman and other veteran analysts of the Muslim world see the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi that killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans as a well-prepared and heavily armed strike by Al Qaeda foot soldiers timed to Tuesday's 11th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.
The deaths of the Americans and the violence in both Libya and Egypt "must be condemned unequivocally," said Rabbi David Saperstein, head of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. He likewise denounced the dissemination of the video, which he said was "clearly crafted to provoke, to offend and to evoke outrage."
The Benghazi attack appeared to be the work of militants who had been looking for an opportunity to express murderous outrage at the war against Muslims they contend the United States is waging, said Michael Collins Dunn, editor of the Middle East Journal.
The U.S. diplomatic venues were "caught in the crossfire of two ignorant armies: rabid Islamophobes determined to attack the prophet of Islam on the one hand, and the most extreme Islamists on the other, determined to avenge him," Dunn said of the reciprocal incitements.
"Both consider that there is a war to the death between Islam and the West. There is not, yet," Dunn said. "It is important for people of goodwill on all sides to prevent their vision from becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy."
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Photo: Palestinians burn U.S. flags and chant anti-American slogans in front of a U.N. agency headquarters in Gaza City on Wednesday. A reportedly U.S.-made film disparaging Islam has incited protest and violence in the Middle East, including an attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, in which the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans were killed. Credit: Mohammed Saber / European Pressphoto Agency