From a Western perspective, the violent rioting over something as innocuous as a poorly-dubbed, badly-acted, low-budget film (or, rather, just the YouTube posting of a trailer purporting to preview the film) is baffling.
As the story has developed over the past week or so, it emerges that this film (“The Innocence of Islam”) was made specifically to inspire such rioting overseas.
The question for Americans is: Why have crowds taken the bait? Don’t they know they’ve been conned by charlatans? Don’t they know they’ve been manipulated into feeding a negative stereotype?
Surely neither Islam nor the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) is harmed by these idiots, and it’s hard to imagine any Muslim loosing his or her faith by watching such a film or, in this case, just knowing that it exists.
As William Saletan wrote in Slate, “Internet videos will insult your religion. Ignore them.”
Both religion and freedom of speech became enshrined in the founding documents of the United States of America. The Bill of Rights, the collection of the first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution, starts off with this, the first one:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
That America should not establish a religion for its citizens implicitly recognized that in the pre-Revolutionary period a diversity of belief (or no belief at all) prevailed in the Colonies. In contrast to England (where the Anglican denomination was the established church), the new country would have no state religion. Government and faith would be separate spheres.
Freedom of speech, a concept developed during the European Enlightenment, took on added significance following a revolution by colonies against their home country.
Key to the development of the Bill of Rights were the writings of John Locke (1632-1704), an English philosopher and physician widely regarded as one of the most influential of Enlightenment thinkers. He argued that each individual is free and equal in the state of nature. Therefore, each individual could (and should) be free to say what he or she thinks and believe what he or she believes.
No government could prevent one from speaking out (on virtually any topic barring treason), and no government could decide what religion all its citizens should follow.
Voltaire (1694-1778), a French Enlightenment writer, historian and philosopher known not only for his wit but for his passionate advocacy of civil liberties, is quoted as saying, “Think for yourselves and let others enjoy the privilege to do so too”.
Thus, riots protesting exercise of these rights confuse Americans – and not only because few (if any) of the rioters could have seen the film or even the 14-minute trailer.
The average American wonders: How can it be possible that people in 2012 still believe that thought can or should be regulated? Why target nonconforming people with blasphemy laws? Why riot when foreigners post a video? Why act as though the behavior of others will shake your faith?
It’s often said that the Islamic world is mired in the medieval past. That “top down” dictates of religion and speech are still expected and acceptable because Muslims outside the West have not experienced an equivalent to the European Enlightenment.
Perhaps it is up to Muslims in America to tackle the hard work of bringing a faith forged some 1400 years ago in the sands of the Arabian Peninsula to the globalized 21st Century.