Libya (and Beyond) Opinion: The Lesson from Benghazi? Standing Against the "Sam Baciles" to Protect Religious Minorities
Protests against a movie insulting the Prophet of Islam; the deaths of US diplomatic staff, American security guards, and an unknown number of Libyans; insinuations that Muslims are all just violent bigots --- all this was sparked by what appears to be a campaign to provoke violence by an individual who deceived a film's actors and the national and international media about himself and his motivations.
Before I go any further, let me make a few things clear:
- I believe in the right to free speech even if it's hurtful to people's sensitivities --- especially when it's hurtful to people's sensitives. Free speech laws would not be necessary if people were not threatened by violent mobs who excused their violence against the speaker by proclaiming that their feelings were hurt.
- If the US enacts laws that punish free speech, then Muslims living in America could be dragged out of their homes and put in prison, for example, if a Christian complains that an Imam's sermon proclaiming that Jesus is not the son of God constitutes an insult to religion.
Free speech laws and freedom of religion laws protect Muslims in the US more than Christians, given that Muslims are a minority in the country.
- The response to any hateful speech that claims Muslims are violent, as my brother said to me yesterday, should be "for us to sit at home in peace or it proves their point."
- The violence that took place in Benghazi and Cairo is criminal and reprehensible. Those responsible for the attacks --- whether they were pre-planned and unconnected to this movie or a response to this movie --- must be arrested and brought to justice. This movie in no way justifies the sacking of the US Consulate in Benghazi in Libya, with the murder of Americans and Libyans --- nor the assault on the US Embassy in Egypt.
That being said, free speech means I also have the right to criticize not just the movie but the motivations of its maker and promoters.
That Muslims are offended by visual depictions of the Prophet of Islam and other insulting material related to Islam is no secret. In the past few years, the Danish cartoons controversy, the several instances of the burning of the Qur'an, and other episodes have proven time and again that whenever such insulting material is published or Muslim religious material is destroyed, some radical Muslim leaders will incite ordinary people to take violent action instead of peaceful condemnation. Some Muslims will respond to these calls and the result has always been tragic.
This has been especially true in Afghanistan, the country where I was born.
On each occasion, thousands of Afghans were incited to protest. The violence that ensued, both because of the protests and the actions by law enforcement agencies to quell them, has resulted in scores of deaths. Most recently in February, more than 30 Afghans died in protests after reports that Qurans were burnt at a US military base. This week's events could bring another deadly confrontation.
The maker and promoter of the movie --- whether "Sam Bacile" is real or a mask for those who are responsible --- do not live in caves. The "consultant" for the film, Steve Klein, said on Wednesday that he expected a violent reaction.
If the movie was an actual, historical criticism of Islam, based on intellectually sound arguments, this would be a different affair. But this movie is not only inaccurate; it makes a mockery of the scholarly understanding of Islam.
The excuse may be offered that the film was made to highlight the oppression against religious minorities in many Islamic countries, especially Christians who sometimes face government-sponsored restrictions. If that is the case, the movie does an incredibly poor job --- more than anything, it escalates the prospect of repression and backlash through its polemic.
I am certain the maker of the film and its promoters do not care about Muslim lives, in the context of the film and statements published yesterday. Though, I also think they do not care much about the lives of religious minorities in Islamic countries. Florida Pastor Terry Jones, who promoted this movie and who burned the Quran in 2011, is all too aware that the protests in response to his actions resulted in attacks on several Christian churches.
Brave activists, lawyers, politicians, journalists, and ordinary citizens across the Islamic world --- the overwhelming majority of them Muslims --- have stood up for minority rights at great risk to themselves and their loved ones. They do this every day with their names and pictures plastered all over the Internet, making them easy targets for radicals. Some of them have paid for this with their lives, such as Pakistani governor Salman Taseer, who was gunned down by his own bodyguard for standing up to the country's blasphemy laws in 2011.
The state of religious minority rights in some Islamic countries is deplorable. In Pakistan, even Muslim members of minority sects are being butchered on a weekly basis. In Afghanistan, Christians are not even allowed to openly exist and converts have to pray in hiding. However, that state is not going to be changed by people like Sam Klein, Terry Jones, and "Sam Bacile" provoking violence. It's going to be changed by the slow and methodical --- yet sensitive and respectful --- work of people from those countries.
I know it hurts many Christians to see their fellow Christians suffer under harsh laws in many Islamic countries. It hurts millions of Muslims just as much. The way forward in the situation is not the spiteful caricature of Prophet Mohammed, but respect and sensitivity to counter the radical elements among us. A stand should be made against the "Sam Baciles" so the voices of radical Muslims can be silenced and the weapons taken from their hands.