As I was listening to this interview on NPR the other day, I pondered just how this mess started and who was really to blame. The answer is that we all are to blame to some degree. Is it ridiculous to storm embassies and murder people because you don’t like a movie? Yes. But should America recognize that it bears some responsibility for fostering an environment where such offensive material is not merely allowed but encouraged? Oh yes.
Mr. Saunders was speaking on a slightly different but nevertheless relevant topic: the notion that Muslims invade countries like sleeper cells, reproduce rapidly, and threaten to dominate host country populations within a few generations. It’s a bit of a silly notion but one that has been making the rounds since Italians, Jews, Mexicans, and other unsavory types first began making their way to the Land of Opportunity. The point is this: we readily accept that the “others”–the people who don’t worship the same god (well, they actually do, but don’t tell your Christian friends because they would never associate their deity with the likes of Allah), dress the same way, speak the same language at home–are a threat simply by virtue of being different. Particularly in the post-9/11 world where everyone who reads seditious books or travels to the wrong countries is to be treated with great suspicion, we have let this narrative dominate public life in this country.
This survey by Gallup shows how American Muslims and other Western Muslims feel oppressed and isolated within the cultures they live in. This is an atmosphere that we subtly (and sometimes not-so-subtly) promote when our leaders make casual references to jihads and Crusades and when the media are filled with images of ethnically black or Arab Muslims as terrorists and supervillains. Many Muslim stereotypes (being prolific breeders may be among the least offensive) pervade not just American culture but Western culture in general and in this climate of hatred and fear all it takes is one unstable individual with ready access to weapons and you get a Sikh temple massacre or a Norwegian killing spree.
America and the rest of the world should acknowledge their sins in this regard, but the Muslim countries where so much fear and animosity has been stirred by the actions of a small and as-yet-unidentified group of filmmakers who have produced the equivalent of low-budget hate porn must shoulder some share of blame for this catastrophe as well. Ordinary citizens of places like Libya, Egypt and Iran should take the self-appointed leaders who claim to speak for them to task for igniting this tempest-in-a-teapot. Amid news that Iran has upped the ante by raising the bounty on Salman Rushdie’s head, claiming that if Rushdie had been killed twelve years ago, no one would have had the temerity to make something like the Innocence of Muslims trailer, maybe it’s time that the world’s mainstream Muslims acknowledge that, while they are personally deeply offended by depictions of Mohammed in Western media and would prefer that they did not exist, they are not a reason to blow up planes or destroy embassies.
Let’s be clear about something: one of the things that makes America a great nation is that we allow the presentation of unpopular points of view. Dissent is tolerated and even encouraged to some degree. At least that’s the way things are supposed to be. Increasingly we are seeing a shift away from the officially secular society that this nation was founded as over two centuries ago as hints appear that this country can be, always was, and should be a Christian nation. This too is wrong. As most of those who spout this kind of nonsense know, most of our founding fathers were deists (believers in a vague and impersonal deity who has no interest or involvement in the day-to-day affairs of individuals) not Christians. The Establishment Clause exists because 5,000 years of human history taught those men that “officially” religious countries are inevitably set up for conflict with neighbors who are not co-religionists. Turning this country into a kind of theocracy only sets us on a path to perpetual war–like our distant neighbors in the Middle East.
Nor should we abandon that most valuable of secular principles, the freedom of speech, to legally sanction the producers of this absurd film trailer. It is, as I said above, one of the great ideals of this society that even the atheist, the racist, and the blasphemous are given a voice, not because every voice has equal merit but because we privilege no one voice over another under the law. Thus, while the president was right to release those ads decrying the content of the video as not being representative of America (and we surely hope that it is not), he was equally right not to accede to the demands of those calling for state punishment of the offenders, who have committed no crime in this country.
Mitt Romney, in what I can only see as a desperate attempt to appear relevant, jumped in front of a camera last week so he could berate the president for “apologizing.” He is an idiot. I can’t even imagine which of his goofy advisors told him that the murder of an ambassador overseas in what appears to have been a well-planned assault could be fertile ground for partisan political maneuvering.
In any case, we should all take a hard look at our own reactions to this unfolding saga and what it means for the role of religious freedom, pluralism and the dream of what America can and should be, while reminding our brothers to the East that authoritarian rule and religious laws are not the sort of virtues that we wish to emulate.