October 5, 2012—The Middle East again has erupted with weeks of virulent and violent anti-American and anti-Western protests. Rioters besieged the American embassy in Egypt. Similar scenes followed Yemen to Pakistan. Even Muslims in European cities vented their venom.
The excuse was a Youtube trailer for an anti-Mohammad movie as well as some anti-Islam drawings published in France, a replay of the Danish cartoon controversy
of several years ago. And the implications are discouraging for those who hope for progress toward open, civil society in the Arab-Muslim world.
Primacy of reason
Any civilized country must be founded on a respect for reason and freedom. Reason is our unique human faculty for understanding the world around us and for guiding our lives in the pursuit of happiness. And reason in society with others means freedom of speech and expression. It is in dialogue with others that we seek truths about nature and the material world, about ethics, about politics, about aesthetics; and, yes, about religion.
The West went through a nearly millennium-long dark period when critical thinking was looked at with suspicion and truth was assumed to be found in religious dogma rather than free inquiry. Asking questions of orthodoxy could be a death sentence in that dark age.
But the West had an Enlightenment
. Over the past several centuries, reason and free discussion were accorded their central place in the culture. The result, of course, is our prosperous modern world.
The Muslim world desperately needs such a cultural revolution if it is to truly join the ranks of the civilized. But the recent riots again have shown how far that culture is from a commitment to free, rational inquiry. And rather than explaining to their co-religionists the importance of free expression, Muslim leaders have sought censorship.
For example, at the United Nations meeting in September the representatives of Muslim countries advocated a global ban on speech that, in their minds, insults Mohammed. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan
led the charge, and Turkey is one of the most liberal Muslim countries.
In the United States, where Muslims are generally more integrated into the modernist culture, Imam Hassan Al-Qazwini of the Islamic Center of America in Dearborn, Michigan said, concerning the producers of the anti-Mohammed film clip, “Somehow, they should be stopped” and “The U.S. response should be much more stronger than verbal condemnation.”
This censorship might seem odd in light of the outpouring of criticism of the old regimes in Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia that resulted in their overthrow during the Arab Spring. But while no doubt frustration with economic conditions and repression of critics were parts of the motivation of the crowds in the streets and of the fighters in the field, the revolutions were not undertaken for sake of individual liberty.
The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt has replaced the authoritarian Mubarak regime with governance according to repressive sharia law. In the West the Enlightenment involved serious thinking about the nature and role of religion in society as well as exhaustion from religious wars that had drenched Europe in blood. But the one thing not open to discussion in the Arab-Muslim world is just the religion that bars free thought and inquiry and that is the justification for repression and violence. Modernist Muslims who speak up risk their lives. Columnist Tom Friedman notes
some tender shoots of modernist reaction to the oppression—but they're most notable for being rare.”]
When America’s embassy in Egypt was under siege, ostensibly because of the Youtube trailer, an embassy statement condemned “the efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims.” Apart from being a slap at the Western tradition of free expression, the statement did reveal the deep, abiding problem with many Middle East Muslims.
They are moral children or, more accurately, petulant juveniles who can’t brook anything not in accordance with their unthinking and irrational whims. But rather than holding their breath or pouting in a corner, they riot, burn, and kill.
Unfortunately, just saying “Grow up!” to them—which is what they should do—won’t work. It will be a long road ahead to an Enlightened Arab world.