In Benghazi the ‘spontaneous protestors’ arrived with rocket-propelled grenades and killed the US ambassador. In Kabul the crowds chanted ‘Death to America’. American flags were torched from London to Sydney. But in Washington the Obama administration showed that they weren’t taking any of this personally. It wasn’t about them, but about an excerpt from an amateur film on Youtube called Innocence of Muslims. As they say, keep telling yourself that.
If there is one thing people ought to have learnt from a decade of groundhog jihad, it is that there is always a film, novel or cartoon — always an excuse to riot and loot and burn. The odd thing is not that there are people who seize these excuses, but that Western leaders keep supplying them.
As so often before, Hillary Clinton was among the first. ‘To us — to me personally — this video is disgusting and reprehensible,’ she said. If you watch the film, you may well think it crass. You will certainly think it badly made. But you may well also wonder when the remit of American Secretary of State included the role of chief film critic. ‘It appears to have a deeply cynical purpose,’ Clinton said of the film. And cynical films are a matter for government since when?
Worse was when the military joined in the blurring of powers. At one stage the notorious pastor Terry Jones said he might promote the dreaded video. Two years ago, when he threatened to burn a Koran, Jones’s callers included Defense Secretary Robert Gates. This time the threat that a lone nut-job might ‘like’ a Youtube video brought special pleading on the phone from General Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Compare this with the response when cartoons of Mohammed appeared in a Danish newspaper in 2005. Along with the burnings and killings, various Muslim leaders demanded that the Danish government apologise. But as Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen said, you cannot apologise for something you have not done. When ‘community leaders’ demanded to see him he refused. The government and free press are separate bodies, he pointed out. Government is no more responsible for what the press does than vice versa and if anyone isn’t aware of this fact, then the sooner they are, the better.
The Obama administration could have explained that the American government does not censor or censure lawful expression by its citizens. They might also have explained that freedom of expression is one of the foundation stones of any free society. But they did not, and in their retreat across the first amendment they have stored up terrible problems for themselves and their successors. After all, what if General Dempsey fails to stop the next film? Will the army be legitimately held responsible? What will the Secretary of State say if the next film is comparatively uncynical, or even well-made?
A couple of weeks ago Channel 4 was forced to cancel a screening of Islam: the Untold Story because of death threats against its presenter. As viewers of Tom Holland’s polite and scholarly documentary will know, the Channel 4 film could not have been further removed from the Youtube shenanigans. But the threats came anyway. And in this fact lies a truth that many people seem still incapable of absorbing.
The fact is that it does not matter whether the film is funny or unfunny, badly or well made, sarcastic or scholarly. It doesn’t matter because the people we are talking about do not hate our films. They hate us. It is not that they disagree with this or that point being made: they think we should not be able to make certain points, among them anything deemed offensive by any radical Muslim, any time, any place, anywhere. If the Obama administration thinks it can live with that, then good luck to them, but their successors will not be so lucky.
It was not an accident that the German and British embassies were attacked. The flag of Israel did not get burnt just because the local stockists ran out of supplies of Stars and Stripes. The mother of the little boy at a protest in Sydney photographed holding up a ‘Behead all those who insult the prophet’ placard had not just forgotten to add the caveats and footnotes.
Across the Middle East and North Africa there is a war going on between mosque and state, but the war is in the West too. That there are extremists who seek to go one way is nothing new. What is new is that at exactly the moment when a countervailing force is needed, the world’s leading democracy has gone into retreat over its own founding principles. It is not to overstate things to say that this is a tragedy: because whether these values win over there depends to a great extent on whether they are truly valued and defended over here.