The Clash of Civilizations takes a dangerous turn
Such is the state of the world that a nut case – in this case an Egyptian Copt and a convicted embezzler to boot – can produce a cheap film in his backyard that incites the rabble in Islamic countries to go on a bloody rampage and kill a U.S. ambassador, as well as three of his diplomatic colleagues.
Such is also the state of the world that Western right-wing racists and fanatics can engage in acts of willful provocation and ascribe it to freedom of expression, thus trying to present a civilized image of themselves, which they cannot by definition have due to their worldview.
The freedom of expression debate and whether this includes the right to offend and incite crowds to acts of violence could go on forever. There is much talk now in the U.S. about the right to free expression enshrined in the Constitution and whether this even covers the proverbial example of having the right to shout “fire” in a crowded theatre.
This is one debate that cannot be won, since there are political, philosophical, and ethical dimensions – not to mention security implications – which ensure that it cannot by its very nature be a black or white topic for those looking at the matter objectively in the light of what is being experienced.
There is also the “civilizational” divide which ensures that both sides of this debate, when it concerns Islamic sensitivities, will never see eye-to-eye. The bottom line, however, is that this is not merely an intellectual debate anymore. Neither does the right to free expression prevent individuals from acting responsibility.
How this freedom is exercised is also crucial. The fact is that people are dying because of an irresponsibly provocative use of this freedom, and this is deepening the civilizational divide in ways that create more global instability.
The corollary to all of this, of course, is that demonstrating for one’s beliefs is also a fundamental democratic right, but this right does not extend to acts of violence. Democratic demonstrators have to act responsibly too.
With its predominantly Islamic identity, on the one hand, and its Western-style system of government – which is still striving to be more democratic and respectful of freedom of expression - on the other, Turkey is again caught in the middle as fury spreads in the Islamic world over the film denigrating Islam and the Prophet Muhammad.
It is Turkey’s dual character which undoubtedly prompted U.S. President Obama to call Prime Minister Erdoğan to ask him to speak out against the violence committed by demonstrators protesting the offending film. To his credit, Erdogan obliged and criticized the violence by using the strongest words of any Islamic leader, and making it clear that nothing could justify the killing of an ambassador and other diplomats in this way. Neither did Erdoğan resort to any of the “qualifying remarks” that some Islamic opinion framers are resorting to in order to provide an explanation, if not justification, for such violence. However, he did go on to condemn the film and say that it could not be considered to fall within the protection of freedom of expression, but should rather be seen as a hate crime.
This is the minimum he had to do as a devout Muslim in a predominantly Islamic country. Nevertheless, Erdoğan reiterated that nothing could justify the violence that was seen last week and continues to simmer. Turkey is uniquely placed, with one foot in each world, for Erdoğan to keep emphasizing this point over and over again.
The Islamic world needs credible and reputable Muslims to keep doing this and to try and make people understand that there is little good that can come from the kind of intolerance we have witnessed. There is also the need for reputable and credible people in the West to speak out against cheap but dangerous provocations that are so easy to shroud under arguments about freedom of expression.
Unless such people emerge on both sides and speak out, the asymmetrical war based on the clash of civilizations is set to grow. This is bad for the West and it is also bad for the Islamic world, since there can be no winners here - only sufferers.