I suppose my thoughts will reflect ignorance as well as insight when it comes to such a sensitive topic, but let me get some ideas on the table and hopefully draw some feedback, especially from my international friends (as public comment here or private email), to fill the gaps in my understanding.
It seems the pan-Islamic riots would divide Moslems into several categories:
- Those who know that most Americans think the filmmaker is an idiot, who understand the American system tolerates the self-expression of idiots without endorsing it, and who feel that the rioters are giving Islam a bad name in the world.
- Those who don’t understand how free expression without government approval works, who assume that the American government and people at least vaguely endorse the film or they would have shut it down.
- Those who understand the American system and its freedoms, but who still blame America for being a little too complacent about those who fan the flames of Islamophobia.
- Those who understand the American system and its freedoms, but who also see America as an imperialist bully having its economic and cultural way with the Middle East, and who will take what occasions they can to push back on that economic and cultural influence.
I assume that the rioters are a subset of # 2 and # 4, possibly with the more savvy # 4 folks harnessing the raw energy of the # 2 folks (and of young men angry about conditions unrelated to the film).
After 9/11, a subset of Americans blamed the whole Moslem world for the actions of a few evil men, potentially giving Americans in general a bad name.
After some knucklehead makes a homemade video that most Americans would scorn, a subset of Moslems blames the whole Western world for the actions of this renegade knucklehead, potentially giving Islam in general a bad name.
At least from the Western perspective, it is obvious that the sparks are not equivalent – a renegade idiot making an offensive amateur film in his garage is not the equivalent of killing thousands of people and destroying the WorldTradeCenter.
Equivalence # 2:
If America tolerates Bill Maher’s ridicule of Christianity in the widely distributed “Religulous,” then it can’t very well censor (note it can vocally condemn but cannot legally censor) someone’s garage film ridiculing Islam.
Non-equivalence # 2:
At least from the Middle Eastern perspective (as my Western mind imagines it), religion inevitably has a different cultural place and a different level of sensitivity. Americans can easily shrug off Maher. We’re free to agree or disagree with his point of view, and either way there’s not much at stake in terms of our freedom or our cultural identity. But religion and history are differently entangled in the Middle East. In the Medieval West, the Christian Church exerted hegemonic control over people’s lives. When the Enlightenment brought forth ideas of personal freedom and democracy, it was to a large extent liberating us from the oppressive control of the Church. Religious and intellectual dissent become tolerated and then cherished.
In the Middle East, my sense is that something of the reverse happened. The secular Western democracies have been perceived for a century or more (at least since World War I) as the oppressor, the colonizer. In this configuration, traditional Islam is seen as the vehicle of liberation, the inner source of power that can help the Islamic world to throw off shackles of secular Western democracies and flourish in freedom once again.
This historical analysis at least would explain what is otherwise inexplicable to many of my American friends: i.e., if you really want to gain your freedom, why invite religious hegemony, censorship, and sharia law? If my assessment is correct, historical contingencies can answer that question … but in the long run I still favor a system that gives maximum leeway for individual expression and dissent, one that does not censor expression on behalf of any religion. Making a film like “The Innocence of Muslims” is an asinine act but not a criminal act. And that’s how it should be.