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Not Your Sunday Funnies

By Elby Davis, Transatlantic Community Analyst


In the West, major violent conflict among religious groups ultimately gave way to tolerance and pluralism – both developments, many have argued, indicate that such conflict is no longer an issue in these countries. Recent events, however, have shown that while the West may have moved beyond this challenge, it still has to contend with violent religious fervor beyond its borders. Throw a more internationally accessible media into the mix, and we have the situation U.S. and European embassies recently faced abroad.

A recent anti-Islam YouTube video critical of the Prophet Muhammad incited sizable protests against the West in the Muslim world, and may have even played a role in the death of the U.S. Ambassador to Libya in Benghazi. The Obama administration quickly disavowed the video, and even paid $70,000 for ad space on Pakistani television for damage control. While Google denied a Whitehouse request to pull the clip, it did make the video inaccessible in Egypt and Libya, which saw the most protests and violence. Just days later, the Paris-based satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo released a series of images of Muhammad naked and crouching. France, which has Western Europe’s largest Muslim population, immediately closed its embassy and a French school in Tunisia.

More critical voices argue that recent events have less to do with the YouTube video than with other issues. Professor of International Relations at BU and Senior Fellow at the Harvard Institute, Husain Haqqani, argues that the supposed slight of the anti-Islam YouTube film is just a pretext for calculated violence against the wrong enemy. He argues that since the 16th century, the Muslim world has been losing its economic and political power on the world stage. After eight centuries of ascendancy, the decline began in the 1700s with the rise of the so-called Western world. The Islamic world accounts for 20% of the global population but only seven percent of global output, and some Muslim leaders are trying (successfully for now) to misdirect the blame onto outsiders. He points out that even when first confronted with other modes of thought or religions in the past three hundred years, Islamic attacks against others were relatively uncommon.

Steve Coll of the New Yorker argues that the 1990s concept of “Muslim Rage” hardly explains the phenomenon. The idea that Muslim anger directed at Western ideology is at the heart of the recent backlash offers no explanation for political violence (or a lack thereof) in states such as Indonesia, which is a democratic constitutional republic. While violent and militant Muslims often make the news back home, they only rarely garner support from even a small minority of the local faithful when it comes down to burning, killing, and looting. The attack on the U.S. embassy in Libya has much more to do with the fact that the newly formed democratic Libyan government failed to disarm the group than it does with an insatiable appetite for spilling Western blood.

These are two of many views suggesting that other factors drove the recent protests, but it seems likely that the YouTube video under discussion also played a significant role. This revives a long-standing dilemma for Western, Middle Eastern, and other governments: how do states reconcile freedom of speech and press with the need to address clear and present security threats? For some countries, coping with this problem has not been particularly challenging – the YouTube video in question was instantly blocked in countries throughout the Middle East where the depiction of the prophet violates local laws. But in the case of France, for instance, Charlie Hebdo was not legally obligated to comply with government requests to halt the distribution of the newspaper issue in question. Charlie Hebdo’s website currently features a petition to support freedom of expression, noting that “if freedom of expression has limits, they are set by law, not by violence or promise of violence” [translated from French]. Similarly, in the U.S., Google refused to remove the YouTube video on the grounds that it did not violate the company’s Terms of Service under its User Agreement.

If some media sources actively propagate negative images of Muslims, aggravate the Muslim world with satire, and even encourage Western ignorance of other sources of Muslim strife – are our current laws adequate? What should the balance between freedom of expression and security be?


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