News / Middle East

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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Comment Sorting
by: david le from: Canada
September 14, 2012 4:12 PM
Muslim people and countries are still full of violence and ignorance. Each country and religion has extreme people, yes. But nowadays, only extreme Mulisms use deadly violence & killing to " punish" the other countries and religions. And only Muslism have so many extremes. I am an Asian Canadian and my religion is Buddhism. I do not think that any Buddhist will kill the others for their insulting Buddha. Honestly, I feel scared, hate and frustrated at Muslism/ Islamic.
In Response

by: Anonymous from: Canada
September 20, 2012 11:49 AM
David has a very good point. Why is it expected that Muslim's can and will react violently to any inkling of comment or critisim of their religion while all other religions wouldn't and typically don't react? If the Muslim leaders cannot control their flock or are insighting the rage and violence then they have to be held responsible for these acts of terror.

The Muslim religion has now proven that it is out of step with the modern world and has to be viewed with suspicion of its objectives. A belief system that uses chaos, anarchy rage and violence to deliver its message of brotherhood and peace is a failed doctrine. . A religion of merit can and should be able to withstand critisim and prevail unaffected. THe West asks that Muslims modernise and act accordling for your religion to be respected not feared.

by: Godwin from: Nigeria
September 14, 2012 11:35 AM
This article seems to wonder whether after bathing the pig and dressing it in suit it will not return to the sludge. The answer is yes it will. After locking up the society of the muslims from the rest of the world, they are not expected to behave better. It is gratifying that some of them are beginning to speak about freedoms, but how much longer it's going to take before a greater number of the people embrace it cannot be determined. But they should have started from the understanding that USA was just coming from the grief of 9/11 remembrance to be commonsensical. The emancipation of the islamic conference will come when they begin to realize that not everything right is good to do at all times. It might be right to protest how badly mohammed is exposed, but the wild protests show his followers and himself in bad light either for bad followership or as a bad teacher. In the meantime, the conference is made of crude talents and unthinking humans who need a lot of lessons in manners and behavior that their leader has no way of imparting to them.

by: Muneeb from: India
September 14, 2012 2:51 AM
"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"
Well said!!!

by: Anonymous
September 13, 2012 9:37 PM
The violence against American embassies in Egypt, Libya, Yemen, etc. has nothing to do with an anti-Islam video. There are hundreds of such videos on the internet and they have been up for years. This violence started on September 11th for a reason, it is a renewal of the threat against America, the same threat that we saw in 2001.

The policies of Obama and Clinton are now proven to be absolute disasters, the American people ought to demand their resignation.
In Response

by: Godwin from: Nigeria
September 14, 2012 11:44 AM
I can't agree less. If it were possible, the duo should throw in the towel without further delay. But this is not to close all American embassies in the OIC region, instead to brace for serious action to repel some of these ill-feelings of hostility and aggression against civilization and freedoms.

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