The statement that said the most to me when I first heard about the sad events in Cairo and Benghazi last night was written on the U.S. embassy walls in Cairo: "If your freedom of speech has no limits, may you accept our freedom of action." As with the Jyllands-Posten cartoon controversy several years ago, we should remember that we should not abandon freedom of speech because it is difficult or can cause controversy. Furthermore, we in the U.S. should not overreact to demagogues who would like nothing more than to see a rupture of ties between the U.S. and the Middle East.
I lived in Egypt when the Jyllands-Posten cartoon controversy occurred. For those that might not remember, a Danish paper published several cartoons in September 2005 mocking the Prophet Mohammed. Months after the original publications, a few imams publicized the issue in the Middle East, with the result of attacks on embassies in the Middle East, deaths, and the boycotting of Danish products. In Egypt, the Danish butter Lurpak suddenly disappeared from the shelves and people handed out fliers on the Cairo metro relaying in detail a Danish led plot against Islam.
At the time, several Egyptians expressed to me how the cartoons had personally offended them and violated their sense of freedom of religion, since it was an explicit attack on the foundation and integrity of their religion. My response to their anger was to say that attacking the Danish embassy or boycotting Lurpak would not be productive, indeed it would almost do the exact opposite, giving further ammunition to Islamophobes about the “barbarian” nature of Muslims. Their response was always the same, that the Danish government could have done something to stop the newspaper from publishing the cartoons (or other papers from republishing them). The idea of free speech, that a newspaper could write or do something and the government has no ability to stop it, was met with blank stares. Such a thing didn’t exist in Egypt, indeed throughout the Middle East, and most people could not accept the idea that the government could do nothing to prevent the cartoons’ publication. Of course it is simplistic to say that Egyptians don’t understand free speech, as obviously many do, but rather than frame it as a free speech issue, most Egyptians framed it as a freedom of religion issue.
However, whether freedom of religion or freedom of speech, many are trying to use outrage and the resulting attacks for their own ends. As detailed here, the 14-minute trailer was actually put up on YouTube last July and it is only now after demagogues, such as television host Khaled Abdalla, and ultra-conservative television president Wesam Abdel-Wareth publicized the film, that it became widely known in Egypt (and in the U.S., for that matter). What’s unfortunate is that rather than try to meet anti-Muslim propaganda head on, these men want to create controversy for their own ends, whether it is to give further proof to their warped world view or to deliberately sabotage American-Middle Eastern reactions.
The reactions in Cairo and Beghazi aren’t the only places where one could question whether some people understand the concept or free speech or religion, or its abuse. Some have very wrongly called for provocateur and idiot extraordinaire Terry Jones to be tried for accessory to murder for having publicized the film. Headlines like this also don’t help, but rather try to delegitimize anger over what is an attack on religion. Rather than call for civility, other writers have used sensationalistic language, such as saying, “a marauding horde of Muslim extremists stormed the U.S. consulate.” Afghan President Hamid Karzai also joined into the fray, releasing a provocative statement, further adding fuel to the fire.
Whether it is defending freedom of speech or freedom of religion, overreactions lead to what we saw in Benghazi yesterday or to what one mosque in Tennessee has had to deal with for years. Rather than play the vitriol card, the best thing we can do is have the debate, refuse to be sucked into a game of which side was hurt the most, and do our best to defuse tensions and openly refute such bloviating buffoons as Terry Jones and Khaled Abdalla.