The amateurish film, “Innocence of Muslims,” posted to YouTube, angered many Muslims for its negative portrayal of the Prophet Muhammad. More than 50 people, including the U.S. ambassador to Libya, have been killed in the resulting violence.
It may be difficult for Americans to understand how public criticism of a prophet or savior can lead to organized violence and murder. Even President Obama, speaking at the United Nations last week, challenged the world to seek out the root causes of the rage and violence.
Those shouldn’t be elusive. The causes go far below the surface of the protests and violence, and include religious tolerance, fundamentalism, continued U.S. meddling in the Middle East and free speech.
History shows religions and their fundamentalist adherents have instigated as much of the world’s violence as their secular counterpart, nationalism. And when the two forces are linked by extremists, the results can be deadly.
The horrific tragedy of 9/11 is a prime example. But it wasn’t too many years ago that Christians in Northern Ireland were killing each other because of their Catholic and Protestant differences. Centuries earlier, you probably wouldn’t want to know how many so-called heretics were put to death for alleged blasphemy by Christian authorities.
Anybody can post a video to YouTube. That enraged Muslims linked this one to the United States as a nation and government illustrates the fact that, despite the Arab Spring’s changes, fundamentalist factions continue to hate the West.
U.S. involvement in last year’s Arab Spring uprisings may have been overtly non-aggressive. But to many fundamentalists and nationalists, we were meddling. And a seething resentment continues over our Middle East policies and arming of Israel.
Americans pride themselves on tolerance, though it may seem lacking in our everyday arguing about political and religious issues, especially with people like pastor Terry Jones and his “Burn a Quran Day.” That’s why President Obama, when protests of the video began and before they became deadly, reiterated religious tolerance as one of our values and condemned the film.
In some parts of the Muslim world, blasphemy is grounds for death, and any medium expressing it is banned. Look at the case of Salman Rushdie, whose execution was ordered in 1989 as his book “The Satanic Verses” was banned in much of the Muslim world.
Likewise, a Pakistani official has offered $100,000 to anyone who executes the makers of the “Innocence of Muslims.”
Most Muslims are deeply offended by statements that insult Islam and its prophet Muhammad. And many don’t understand why the U.S. government refuses to ban the video and force YouTube to remove it from the Internet. Our First Amendment is alien to some who see shielding Islam from blasphemy as more sacred than free expression.
Even many Americans wonder if the video warrants protection if it was posted with the intent of inciting violence. YouTube’s rules limit free expression by barring what it considers “hate speech,” but it has argued the video is more a promotion of ideas that question the authority of the Prophet Muhammad.
U.S. courts have a long history of protecting individual free speech over the objections of groups. That tradition now is clashing with a culture and religion that place Islam far above the rights of individual expression.
We must encourage Americans to be more tolerant and urge those Muslims who loathe U.S. foreign policy to understand that they can openly condemn free expression with which they don’t agree without resorting to violence.
CARY BRUNSWICK is a columnist for The Daily Star in Oneonta, N.Y. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.