There is not much to be said about the ‘Innocence of Muslims’ trailer – and the reaction to it in several Muslim-majority countries – that has not already been said. More enlightened commentary has emphasised the right to free speech and expression and framed the violent response as a predominantly local competition for power, to determine the future politics of specific countries or, they hope, of an entire religion. Of course the nuanced analysis is almost by definition reserved to those who bother to think and read about the events of the past few weeks. Others are driven more by gut reaction and you can see the saddening results online, whether it is at Muslims or the West that the hatred and bile is directed.
This blog post is motivated less by the initial volley – the trailer and the embassy riots – and more by the decision this week by French paper Charlie Hebdo to publish cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammed. As most people are now abundantly aware, this is considered blasphemous by many Muslims. So the question again has to be why? Following the killing of Ambassador Chris Stevens, the burning of American flags and the violence perpetrated in the name of outrage, it was relatively easy to uphold the freedom of speech and to point the finger at those responsible for the bloodletting. There is no moral equivalence between uttering nasty things and killing people, or even threatening violence.
Yet with these cartoons now released to stoke the fire, is there a point at which we must be more circumspect about what we say? The editors of Charlie Hebdo clearly disagree; as editor Stephane Charbonnier tells Al Jazeera English, ‘I’m not asking strict Muslims to read Charlie Hebdo, just like I wouldn’t go to a mosque to listen to speeches that go against everything I believe’. It is a smart defense and the publication of the cartoons is in almost all regards difficult to argue against. There are very good reasons for why the West has its freedom of expression and in a global marketplace of ideas and images, many of which will be insulting to someone, we all have to develop a thicker skin.
But at what point does exercising that freedom of expression become analogous to the obnoxious kid who hurls abuse at passers-by from the safety of his parents’ home? We don’t go around calling people fat, ugly or outright deformed, just because we can. We frown upon slurs, both racial and sexist, and hide all sorts of unpleasant realities with euphemisms. Why then should this same society actively seek out the nerve exposed by parts of the Muslim world and strike it again, and again?
Upon reflection, the only group of people who deliberately strikes raw nerves like that are kids engaged in bullying. You know the story: one kid has been designated as the victim and the others probe until they find the one insult that will cause the most harm – the quickest route to a reaction. Once identified, they pounce. The victim lashes out, violently, and the bullies can then claim outrage over the disproportionate reaction to what was after all ‘only playground taunts’.
There is a fairly good article on CNN.com by David Frum entitled ‘Don’t blame the video; defend free speech’. Nothing here should be read as going against that initial reaction and free speech is not the main problem here. But when free speech is used without any responsibility, or simply to provoke, are there not moral reasons for it to be circumscribed, not by the authorities as in totalitarian states, but by ourselves? Is there not a need for some measure of self-control on the part of outlets like Hebdo Charlie and a suitably adult rejection of hate-mongering by the rest of us? Yes, they are only cartoons and the likely violent reaction cannot be tolerated. But if these cartoons are printed precisely because they will be hurtful to others, we have to question not only the motive but also the righteousness of such action – the righteousness of exercising our beloved free speech.
In this case, it is not just a moral case of not engaging in what is in effect cross-border bullying but also a strategic question, as action such as Hebdo Charlie’s goes against exactly what the West is trying to do to alienate and render irrelevant the extremist forces of al-Qaeda and their ilk. When we through our actions validate their argument that ‘Islam is under attack’, we are contributing to their recruitment appeal and proving correct, in the eyes of many, their narrative. Well done…
One reason the provocation goes on is seemingly because we reject the violent reaction and want to prove a point, as if enough abuse will dull the sensitivity and help them ‘get over it’. I can think of few instances where such shock therapy has worked and the propaganda gift we don our enemies through such action outweigh any benefit accrued.
Another reason, more childish, is that ‘they started it’. Fingers are pointed at the violent sermons in mosques, the burning of flags, the rampant antisemitism and bigotry that one often finds in more extreme contexts. ‘Why should we exercise self-control and “respect the other” when we get so little in return?’ This points to the ultimate challenge of the war of ideas that we are currently in. There is a choice: become like the enemy whom you despise, emulate his tactics, or take a step back and show through your actions and words why such hate-mongering, whether it be by an extremist imam or the editor of Charlie-Hebdo, does not belong in our world and society. As Friedrich Nietzsche put it: ‘He who fights with monsters should be careful lest he thereby become a monster. And if thou gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into thee’. This is not a matter of rights or entitlements, but of judgement and responsibility.