We're now into week two of brow-furrowing and hand-wringing over a low-budget film called Innocence of Muslims. Judging by the media coverage, you'd think brief YouTube clips of a cartoonish D-movie (and not, say, Islamist ideology) uprooted the entire Middle East. With riots breaking out abroad, journalists are spending much of their time gumshoeing around for trailers and release posters.
I suppose, following Hillary Clinton's example, I should condemn the film before the violence. Innocence of Muslims is a horrendous, low-budget work designed solely to offend Muslims. Its auteur, Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, is apparently a fraudster who deceived his cast and crew, dubbing their lines without them knowing they were skewering Mohammed.
Salman Rushdie is not a fraudster. His novel, The Satanic Verses, was a far nobler endeavor than Nakoula's cheap film. But it contained a dream sequence that satirized Islam and the prophet Mohammed. Its publication in 1988 was met with violent riots across the Middle East. Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini later put a bounty on Rushdie who was forced into hiding.
Now Iran has sweetened the pot. Over the weekend, the Jomhoori Eslami newspaper reported that Iran's 15 Khordad Foundation upped the bounty on Rushdie's head from $2.8 million to $3.3 million.
Why keep the Rushdie affair open? The head of the foundation, a fundamentalist named Ayatollah Hassan Saneii, explained, "As long as the exalted Imam Khomeini's historical fatwa against apostate Rushdie is not carried out, it won't be the last insult. If the fatwa had been carried out, later insults in the form of caricature, articles and films that have continued would have not happened." (Emphasis added.)
This is the Islamist strategy, laid as barely as you'll ever see. Kindle a few riots, kill an author, and no one will ever blaspheme against Islam again. It's a de facto global speech code, policed through fear with a penalty of death. And it's one that the government and the Western media are unwittingly enforcing.
The Obama administration called Google last week and asked them to delete the Innocence of Muslims clips from YouTube. The president undoubtedly had good intentions. He doesn't want more loss of life. And the film has amplified the riots, even if it isn't their deepest-rooted cause.
But by bringing the hefty power of the federal government to bear against the movie, he's playing into the hands of the ayatollahs. America's official policy now is to yank down Innocence of Muslims. The Islamists' desired policy is that "insults in the form of caricature, articles and films" aren't heard. In the end, the two fit together pretty neatly. This is pusillanimous surrender to an invisible regime of intimidation.
(A brief digression: I know it's been pointed out again and again, but I still can't help but be flabbergasted that a comedy about the Prophet Mohammed is considered bigotry while dung hurled at the Virgin Mary is subsidized art. Many of the progressives clucking about Innocence of Muslims might want to have lunch some time to work out what they mean by "hate.")
The tumult over our embassies is what happens when cultural values clash in the Internet age. Michael Koplow writes:
[T]here is a fundamental disagreement between what the United States views as a basic right and what many Muslims living in Arab states view as a basic right. Where Americans prioritize freedom of speech as a value to be cherished and upheld no matter the circumstance, the Arab world sees sanctity of religion as a value that cannot be violated in any instance. While this is not new, the explosion in communications technology and the resulting dissemination of information, no matter how obscure or trivial, pushes this divergence of worldviews to the forefront.
Five years ago, nobody in the United States, let alone in Egypt or Libya, would have heard of "Sam Bacile," and not more than a handful of people would have seen any part of the infamous film. Now, however, anyone with a laptop can create an abhorrent masterpiece and ensure that it is viewed by millions of people the world over. The entire planet has become, in the words of Supreme Court justice Stephen Breyer, a "crowded theater" on the brink of stampede.
Sharia Law, the desired legal system of Islamists, prohibits blasphemy and recommends a wide range of punishments, including death. Iran, home of Salman Rushdie's persecutors, bases its blasphemy laws on Sharia and uses them as a battering ram against anyone who speaks out against the regime.
The West's conception of liberty allows for a kaleidoscope of expression and opinions, including blasphemy. Which means that, in the "crowded theater," this sort of thing will happen again. Regardless of what becomes of Innocence of Muslims, someone, somewhere, will denigrate Islam and the Prophet Mohammed. The offense will then be beamed around the world at the speed of the Internet. Islamists in the Middle East will see it and start screaming.
What will President Obama do if he's still in charge? Will he try to scrub the Internet every time there's a Middle East mob? That would give raving fanatics a veto over our freedom of expression. Ayatollah Saneii's vision would be fulfilled. We'd be living under their policy, whether we wanted to or not.
People can riot wherever there are pronounced divisions and passions run high. Americans used to take to the streets quite a bit. But the crowds were never allowed to run the country. After Shays' Rebellion in Massachusetts, the Constitution was written so that a central government could put down mobs. And after anti-Catholic riots shook Philadelphia in 1844, the local bishop's response was to build Catholic schools. Mobs, at least in American history, are rarely worth accommodating.
Likewise, our response to the Islamist uprisings should have nothing to do with appeasement over a moronic movie. Having a strong policy in the Middle East doesn't mean tossing bombs around or demanding that the entire region democratize itself. But it does mean standing behind our values.