The Mutual Misunderstanding – America, Islam, and the First Amendment

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Photo: Mohammed Abu Zaid/AP Photo. Protestors in Cairo scale the walls of the American embassy.

There is a fundamental misunderstanding in the Muslim world about American society and how it works, something that has become glaringly obvious in the week that followed the killing of the US Ambassador to Libya and three of his staff. As the world reacted to the initial attacks in Libya and Egypt, a spokesperson for the Egyptian President, Mohammed Morsi, condemned the violence and issued condolences to the US government, while also calling on the Obama administration to prosecute the “madmen” behind the US made video that is said to have sparked the violence. In response to the video (but before the violence) the US Embassy in Cairo issued a statement, condemning the “continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims — as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions.”

The statement of the US Embassy and the subdued US response to the continued violence during the past week illustrates the American dilemma in trying to improve its relations with Muslim countries in the Middle East while also preserving its own national interests. On the one hand, the US image suffers from decades of direct support to authoritarian dictators who suppressed Islamic political movements and basic freedoms. On the other hand, the US is a country defined by its civil liberties, allowing the administration has very little control over “free speech” content that is produced and published by private Americans on the Internet.

In societies where technology is relatively new and still largely controlled by the authorities, it becomes quite natural to believe that what appears on the internet from across the Atlantic has government backing and represent the united sentiments of all Americans. In addition, for the “Arab street,” it may appear strange that a superpower that has propped up their countries’ militaries and invaded three countries in the Middle East since 9/11 has no power—or willingness—to control its own population’s “hateful outbursts” against “other” religions.

Such a reaction shows that the biggest misunderstanding about American society in the Arab world is probably about how the principle of freedom of speech and religion works. While there are plenty of anti-Islamic fear-mongers in the US, Islam is not generally considered an “other” religion; it is one piece of a mosaic of religious traditions in the United States, all of which get criticized and bashed by those of other or no faith as a result of the imperfect society/democracy that we live in.  While Islam may have been unfairly targeted more recently (especially as a result of 9/11) Muslims are not alone in feeling like they are always on the defensive about their faith. While hate speech can be prosecuted in the US when it targets individuals, the principle of religious freedom in the US allows Americans to attack each other’s religions and Deities almost indiscriminately, as long as it doesn’t lead to attacks and persecution against individual members of those faiths.

This is why, for most mainstream Americans, one quick glance at the absolutely absurd controversial movie trailer “the Innocence of Muslims” would have been enough to realize that this one could not possibly be considered serious enough for anyone to get up from the couch to defend or attack religious freedom. Yet, as soon as it was translated into Arabic and went viral in the Arab world, it was understood as an orchestrated American attack on Islam and Muslims in general.

As violence is spreading in the Middle East, one wonders what, if anything, can be done to prevent similar episodes in the future? What can the US do to ameliorate relations with the Arab and Muslim world in order to prevent a further deterioration of the situation?

The classical answer—sending troops—will not be sufficient this time around. Instead, the US may need to take a hard look at its own national security strategy in order to formulate a more effective policy for improving the US image with the Arab—and Islamic—street. Such an approach will need to have both long-term and short-term elements and include a serious evaluation of how the US fundamental rights of freedom of speech and religion affects people outside of our borders. How can we explain to people, whose freedoms have been suppressed by US-sponsored dictators, that the US is not a “dictatorship” in its own country and is therefore unable to prosecute anyone who expresses anti-religious sentiments in a “public” forum, including the Internet?

One way would perhaps be to take a longer-term perspective, adopting a broader view on the first amendment that would allow a discussion about how such expression affects the religious sensitivities of those religious groups targeted. While the hate speech prohibition in the US protects individuals from persecution on the basis of their religious or ethnic/personal identity, it does not protect those communities from attacks that they themselves may consider the worst kind; blasphemy. In other words, we need to be aware that hate speech may be experienced differently from religion to the next.

Curtailing freedom of speech on behalf of national security is extremely controversial and is certainly not advocated in this piece. However, having the discussion about how something that we take for granted affects those outside of our borders would benefit both sides of the Atlantic while doing little harm.

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NY Times/Damien Cave: An American woman protests the planned Gainsville Koran burning by photographing her daughter with a peace sign.

However, should the US have this discussion alone, or can we expect the Muslim world to meet us half way? Muslims also need to be aware that the recent spread of violence against US and other Western embassies in places as diverse as Tunisia and Australia does not improve the image of Islam in the eyes of non-Muslim Americans. Further, it is understandable that some Americans have a difficult time seeing how the burning of Korans and the making of insulting videos are any worse than flag trampling and church-burning in the Middle East. While some Muslim bloggers have pointed out that the timing of the Libya attack (on September 11th) was proof that the attack was orchestrated by Al-Qaeda and did thus not represent the mainstream view of Libyan Muslims, such an explanation does not fully carry over to the subsequent mass demonstrations and violence in other places around the world.

Moderate Muslims thus also have a difficult task ahead; to convince their societies that confrontation and violence is not likely to improve anything but will only make matters worse.

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