Thursday, September 13, 2012

When values collide

The murder of a US ambassador.  Other embassy officials also killed. The anniversary of 9/11 is always a volatile time: this year, an anti-Islamic film, released on Youtube, has led to tragedy.

The film in question is called Innocence of Islam. Here's a link to the English language version of the 13 minute trailer for it.  Here's a Wikipedia article describing the film and 'Sam Bacile,' its purported filmmaker. As you can see, there's no particular reason to think 'Bacile' exists.  If you watch the link, you can see how crudely the film is made, how badly acted and filmed. It's been promoted in the States by Terry Jones, pastor of the Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Florida. Two years ago, Jones made headlines by announcing he was planning to commemorate 9/11 by burning Q'urans.

When this excerpt from the film appeared on YouTube, Muslims protested.  I can hardly blame them.  Islam reveres the Prophet Mohammed, and the film about him is just disgusting garbage, a film animated by nothing but hatred, informed by a frankly pornographic sensibility.  Egypt erupted; crowds gathering around the US embassy.  The Egyptian President, Mohamed Morsi, issued this statement: "We Egyptians reject any kind of assault or insult against our prophet.  I condemn and oppose all those who insult The Prophet.  But it is our duty to protect our guests and visitors from abroad.  I call on everyone to take that into consideration, to not violate Egyptian law . . . to not assault embassies." Good for him, I think. 

As crowds outside the embassy in Cairo gathered, Senior Public Affairs officer Larry Schwartz issued this statement:

"The Embassy of the United States in Cairo condemns the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims – as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions. Today, the 11th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, Americans are honoring our patriots and those who serve our nation as the fitting response to the enemies of democracy. Respect for religious beliefs is a cornerstone of American democracy. We firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others."

Schwartz cleared this statement with Deputy Chief of Mission Marc Sievers.  The Ambassador, Anne Patterson, was in Washington at the time. There's some confusion about whether or not Schwartz was asked to revise the statement before releasing it.

This statement, by Schwartz, has become controversial.  Mitt Romney characterized it as an apology for American values, and has been sharply criticized for doing so.  I don't want to get into the politics of it, but I can't for the life of me figure out what Romney's talking about.  I think Schwartz did a masterful job.  I think he should be applauded.

What are American values? It seems to me that this is a situation where two central American values collide.  One American value is religious pluralism, the idea that we respect and honor all religious beliefs and traditions.  That value was surely violated, in the most egregious fashion, by this terrible film called, with ham-fisted irony, Innocence of Islam.  Surely we, as Americans, do not believe in or support crude attacks on a major world religion.

But an equally important value is freedom of expression.  Pastor Jones has the right to show this film for his congregation, just as we support the right of 'Sam Bacile' to make such a film.  I'll confess, there is a part of me that wants to tie Terry Jones up and ship him to Al Queda, with a note saying 'here's your guy, we don't want him, do anything you want to to him.'  I do feel a tiny atavistic urge in that direction.  But the First Amendment is most needed when the expression we're protecting is obnoxious.  And I also cherish the First Amendment right to call Pastor Jones a disgusting, repellent, contemptibly irresponsible bigot.  I have the right to call 'Sam Bacile', whoever 'he' 'it' or 'they' might be, a sub-human maggot, to say his film makes my flesh crawl. 

For his part, Mitt Romney also has the right to say of Schwartz' statement, “it's disgraceful that the
Obama Administration's first response was not to condemn attacks on our diplomatic missions, but to sympathize with those who waged the attack."  Put another way, in a Presidential race, both candidates are allowed to say foolish and irresponsible things. 
Look, Schwartz found himself in a difficult position.  Egypt has no democratic traditions. They haven't been a democracy, well, ever, not ever for over seven thousand years.  President Morsi's statement seems reasonable to me.  His people were deeply offended and angered, understandably so.  It must be hard to explain to Egyptians how American values include allowing this film to appear on YouTube, that our government really can't just censor it and arrest the guy or guys who made it.  But not arresting them doesn't mean 'America' (the government or the nation or the people or the culture) are anything but disgusted by it.  We can hate something, really truly loathe it, and also allow it. 

What is becoming increasingly clear is that Schwartz' statement, issued in Cairo, had little or nothing to do with the subsequent tragedy in Benghazi.  The Libyan protests provided cover for Al Queda opportunism--the evidence now suggests that an Al Queda cell in Libya attacked and killed US Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens and three of his staff.

We're going to have to work with Libya to figure out who attacked us and why and what we can do about it.  We're going to have to figure out how to communicate who we are and what we stand for with a terribly offended Islamic world.  Tough choices, difficult times.  We will again be attacked, I suspect, and we will again see our commitment to our values challenged.

Meanwhile, I'm not looking forward to  next September.  And yes, images of our flag burning, of anti-American graffiti on the walls of our embassy, those images are upsetting.  But take into account context. Egypt has been a democracy for, like, ten minutes. They've been ruled by a ruthless dictator, backed by US weapons and treasure. They're disinclined to like Americans, for good reasons. They also rely on us economically--tourism is a major revenue source. They have no democratic traditions, at all, none. They have 25% unemployment. For many Egyptians the only stability and order in their lives is Islam. Which a film just insulted and desecrated, a film distributed by YouTube, owned by Google. Never mind that the filmmaker isn't American. They know who Terry Jones is, and he likes it.  

We need time, patience, forbearance. A foreign policy that didn't support vicious dictators that abuse the human rights of their own citizens; that would help.  And we need, not to apologize for who we are or the values we cherish, but to explain, clearly and sympathetically and empathetically, just what those values are and what they mean. This statement is only a tiny thing, a minor incident.  But we need to demonstrate too.  In our actions, what it means to live in a democracy, what it means to be an American.  Persuasion, gentleness, meekness.  Love unfeigned. 


  1. Yours is one of the more reasoned responses I have read outside the foreign service blogging circle. I can only imagine what our embassy people are going through in these places right now. As a community we are all mourning. It is nice to see that other Americans care too. I loved your last two lines. There are many good people in Egypt and Libya. And I think that you are right that this is the way to reach out. Thanks for caring.

  2. Actually, I'm getting a little weary of hearing about the, oh so tender, and fragile sensibilities of Muslims. It's starting to appear as a convenient excuse to kill an American. And for accuracy's sake, its, "sodomized and murdered."

    1. Well, then, let's put it in pragmatic terms: we've already seen how badly blustering belligerence fails. Since a softer approach is more effective, let's do more of that.

  3. Stephen- I have no idea what your clarification means. Could you maybe clarify exactly what you are talking about?

    Eric- I think that you are right, in that there are two diametrically opposed view points about censorship and control of thought and government. Part of why movies or comics that seem like an obvious part of free speech, to those of us raised in a pluralistic democracy, is that we automatically assume any censorship is bad.
    Most Muslim societies don't see censorship as a bad thing. Censorship is looked at as something that helps protect the community. A Muslim friend once told me that the protection we demand for our children, (no access to pornography for example) should be extended to everyone, if it is offensive to their religious beliefs.

    There is a stronger sense of protection for the community that clashes directly with our stronger sense of individuality. We get upset about community standards of conformity that teaches women to wear a burka. They get upset that we let a movie, that most Americans generally are willing to publicly say are offensive to Muslims, but not be willing to censor that movie, doesn't make a lot of sense. Muslims in the West at least understand a pluralistic society, but we can't expect that people who have never experienced an open society to understand why it is okay to offend them.
    I think that we, as Americans, need to ask ourselves why, if we appreciate and support protestors in the Middle East in support of the US after our Ambassador was killed. Why aren't we having rallies and protests against a movie that most consider offensive? Would we have any reason NOT to show OUR solidarity with those who are offended in other parts of the world?