With violent disturbances breaking out here and there across the Islamic world over The Innocence of Muslims, the YouTube video satirising Mohammed, I was sent a link to a report from Beirut concerning a protest rally, apparently the biggest to date. “Don’t insult our Prophet!”, the story was headed.
Yes, that’s all well and good; these people have a right to protest and a right to feel wounded by a perceived slight to the central figure of their faith. They have a right to feel angry at the film makers, just as some Christians, I feel sure, felt angry over Monty Python’s film The Life of Brian.
But there was more here: reading the story I saw that the slogan the Beirut marchers chanted wasn’t simply “Don’t insult our Prophet!” No, it was “America, hear us – don’t insult our Prophet.” Excuse me? What has this to do with America, and by that I mean the whole nation, or even just the government? Hold on; there was even more than that; there was “Death to Israel.”
My goodness, Israel; if it has nothing to do with America it has even less to do with Israel, unless, of course, that the whole thing is all part of yet another nefarious Zionist plot. Setting that to one side, there is no logic at all here, though the sloganeering in Beirut should give you a clue over the levels of incomprehension and irrationality that we are dealing with, where a hate object, any hate object, will do.
So far as the anti-American sloganeering goes one of the demonstrators, obviously of a more reasonable frame of mind, said that the anger was directed not at the American people but the American government for allowing the film to spread. Now here we have a second clue, an indication how little such individuals, reasonable or not, understand freedom and the nature of democracy.
The link was sent to me by a Muslim, one whom I respect enormously, a friend, a poet, an individual of wide understanding and impeccable culture, pious, yes, but not dogmatic. I wrote back saying that while I could understand the anger it seemed to me to be wholly misdirected –“If the American government could stop free expression then the American constitution, democracy itself, would be meaningless.”
This is the key. Quite frankly, across so much of the Islamic world democracy and freedom are indeed meaningless words, the so-called Arab Spring notwithstanding. That was never about the forms of democratic freedom we understand in the West: it was about replacing a brutal minority with a brutal majority. Let’s not deceive ourselves here. Intolerance is the watchword, a point over which a good many in the Islamist camp will surely not demur.
The hysteria over the amateurish and risible The Innocence of Muslims is just the latest episode in a long-standing cultural war. Yes, cultural war, and I make to apology for using such a melodramatic expression. It begins in the modern age with Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa against Salman Rushdie for his novel Satanic Verses, an edict of death as a form of literary criticism. And I don’t suppose for a moment that this ghastly old devil ever read the book. Rushdie escaped but his book was burned here and there, even in some English cities, Nazi-style. “Where they burn books, so too will they in the end burn human beings”, the German poet Heinrich Heine wrote. On 9/11 people burned.
What is important here is how we deal with this threat to our core cultural values. People reading this will surely remember similar Muslim madness over the Mohammed cartoons that appeared in a Danish newspaper in 2005. Then, as now, various Muslim leaders saw this as a state matter, demanding that the Danish government apologise. To his lasting credit Anders Fogh Rasmusen, then Danish Prime Minister, said that you cannot apologise for something you have not done. When so-called and self-appointed ‘community leaders’ demanded to see him he refused, pointing out that the government and free press are quite separate bodies.
Contrast this with the cowardly Obama regime. It could have taken a similar didactic line, making the same point that I did above about the American constitution and free expression. Western governments do not censor or contain lawful free expression, the emphasis being on lawful.
The stand here, the unshakeable ground, is the First Amendment. But no stand was made. There was no explanation of the nature of free speech in a mature democracy. Instead we were given the most supine forms of appeasement.
There was Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, saying “To us – to me personally – this video is disgusting and reprehensible.” She went on to say that the film appeared to have a “deeply cynical purpose.” I agree with Douglas Murray, who wonders in the Spectator when the remit of the Secretary of State extended to film criticism. More than that: what on earth is she going to say if the next film is uncynical and even well-made?
Our world gets smaller by the day. We are now more aware of our global neighbours, and they are aware of us, than we ever were in the past. We are used to criticism, we accept criticism, we welcome it or we tolerate it, but we now have those living in our midst that do not; we have those among us who believe that there are areas beyond all criticism, that such criticism that does arise should be met with hysteria, terror and death.
As Murray says, it’s not that such people disagree with this or that point being made;
The fact is that it does not matter whether a film is funny or unfunny, badly or well made, sarcastic or scholarly. It doesn’t matter because the people we are talking about do not hate our films. They hate us. It is not that they disagree with this or that point being made: they think we should not be able to make certain pints, among them anything deemed offensive by any radical Muslim, any time, any place, anywhere. If the Obama administration thinks it can live with that, then good luck to them, but their successors will not be so lucky.
“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”, Voltaire is reputed to have said. Over so much of the Islamic world that should read “I disapprove of what you say, and I will kill you for saying it.” Until they get over that they will never understand freedom.
During the Battle of Britain, at the most critical stage in my country’s history, when we stood alone against the whole power of Nazi Germany, Winston Churchill gave one of his most memorable speeches. He sounded a warning;
If we can stand up to him [Hitler], all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands. But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age, made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science…
We face a similar challenge. If we fail now, if we fail to stand against fanaticism and obscurantism, if we fail to uphold our most precious liberties, to even defend freedom of speech itself, then all that we have klnown and cared for, including the United States, will sink into a new Dark Age, made more sinister and protracted by the lights of a perverted faith.