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Mideast Protests Spark Debate Over Free Speech, Religion

  • Elizabeth Arrott

Violence this week in Libya, Egypt and Yemen has once again brought to the fore inherent tensions between free speech, however offensive, and religious dignity. Some political analysts in Cairo invoke the dictum that the remedy for such speech is more speech.

The attacks on U.S. missions in Libya, Egypt and Yemen highlight how easily passions against the nominal ally of those countries can be ignited. An obscure, crudely-made American video mocking the Prophet Muhammed triggered rage and murder.

“This is the price of extremism. If those who made the film wanted an extremist reaction, they got it. They succeeded,” said Said Sadek, a professor of Political Sociology at the American University in Cairo.

Sadek argues extremists on both sides got what they wanted: for one, proof that Islam is violent, for the other, that America is the enemy of their religion - points scored at the expense of those in the middle, including slain U.S. ambassador Chris Stevens.

“The majority of people, Muslims and Christians, are not extremists but they're captives of those extremists on both sides. Each side is provoking something and then the others are responding and they try to push the silent majority into extremism and suspicion and intolerance,” Sadek said.

Sadek says it's an anti-Western political agenda easy to deploy.

“There is a misunderstanding in Muslim countries [about] the relationship between government and media," he said. "They still believe it's like in autocratic regimes: the government orders the media to do this or to do that. President Obama did not order that movie about Islam is made. In fact, he is being accused in America that he is pro-Muslim.”

Libya's government was clear in its condemnation of the Benghazi attack. Egypt's initial response made no direct mention of the death of Ambassador Stevens, although a day later it rejected the``unlawful acts'' against foreign embassies.

“I don't think that the government has enough political capital to actually counter that vision. They cannot state that 'Well, okay, there's an offensive movie but it's not that important and it does not represent the U.S. administration and it's a matter of free speech.' They could never say that,” said Ziad Akl Moussa, a political analyst in Cairo.

It's a dynamic that has played out several times in recent years, with Danish cartoons of the prophet and other western images deemed insulting provoking bursts of outrage.

“It's a contention over putting creativity on a pedestal in the West and actually putting a red line behind it in the East. It doesn't mean that this is wrong and this is right, it simply means that it's different. But we never addressed that,” Moussa said.

He argues until governments frame the question as one of freedom of expression, not a fight over religion, such violence “will happen again and again.”

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