Two days after the death of U.S. ambassador Christopher Stevens in Benghazi, Libya, protesters continue to mass outside of U.S. embassies in Egypt and Yemen. The protesters are apparently reacting to a low budget, anti-Muslim video made by Americans that was distributed in a trailer-like segment on YouTube. The murder of Stevens and three of his aides in Libya seems to be the work of a paramilitary group using the protests for cover. That group may or may not be affiliated with al Qaeda.
In the West, this all sadly reads as another example of Islam proving unable to deal with the consequences of free speech. It recalls the threats surrounding the publication of Mohammad in a political cartoon in a Danish newspaper, the murder of Dutch filmmaker Theodoor van Gogh and the late 1980s fatwa (death sentence) decreed by Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini against the novelist Salman Rushdie. The strictest adherents to Islam will tolerate no heresy, even from outsiders. Meanwhile, in the U.S. and Europe, prevailing law largely gives individuals the right to be as offensive as they want.
This is a particular problem as the pace of liberalization in the Middle East quickens. New democracies are forming. Minority voices that had been oppressed by dictators in Egypt and Libya are now being heard. More tolerant governments are replacing regimes that once tightly censored media and the Internet. More than ever before, the Muslim world is on a collision course with ideas that many of its people will find offensive, if not blasphemous.
In the U.S. and Europe, the religious faithful are exposed to such ideas all of the time, and yet we have not seen the pronouncements of death sentences, the tearing down of embassies or the murder of filmmakers. We’re all human, so it seems unlikely that a citizen of Sana, Yemen would be more prone to violent outbursts than a citizen of Cupertino, California. Islam also doesn’t seem to condone violence much more or less than any ancient religion, where the founding texts were born in violent times.
The difference between the U.S. and Europe and the emerging Middle East was identified in Johns Hopkins professor Michael Mandelbaum’s 2007 book Democracy’s Good Name. Mandelbaum argued that for democracy to take hold, a country needs a fully functional civil society. This is more than just clear laws and good governance. It’s chess clubs and trade organizations and non-defamation leagues.