Columns / Discourse / September 20, 2012

Voice of Reason: Bonfire at the Embassy

First of all, I would like to welcome everyone to Knox if they are freshmen or transfers, or back to Knox if they are anybody else. Hopefully your summers were relaxing or productive, depending on what it was you were looking for. As for me, my summer was spent interning with the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), researching and writing about the role of Islam in the United States and in the world at large, which proved to be an endlessly fascinating topic as well as an always relevant one, as the events of this past week have shown.

Rioting has swept across much of the Islamic world in response an utterly amateurish movie titled “Innocence of the Muslims,”  put out by a man in California, which depicts the Prophet Mohammed as an idiot and a pedophile, among other things. Through a convoluted chain of events, it went viral and triggered the violent responses seen on the news in the past week.

The curious thing about “Innocence of the Muslims” is that there seems to be no reason to protest it, as the video itself is so poorly done that the filmmakers undermine their own case. If is difficult to imagine anyone watching it and saying, “The man who wrote this knows what he’s talking about!” For me at least, the only theological issue it raised was how a merciful God could allow such terrible scriptwriting and set design to be inflicted upon the world.

But the world is made up of those who are far more easily offended than I am. Besides, judging by the way these things typically go, most of those protesting and talking about it have probably not actually troubled themselves to see it. We just have to accept that and move on. What, then, should be the response to this video?

Aristotle advised long ago that the virtuous path lies in between the two extremes. I find that he was generally right about this. There is a proper way to react to this video for us in the West and two very incorrect ways.

From the right-wing, some are taking these events and lazily using them to prove the so-called “clash of civilizations” theory, that the Muslim world and the Judeo-Christian West are destined to be eternally at odds because of their inherently contradictory cultural values. Perhaps, but I am doubtful. For one thing, there is one glaring example of a country where Muslims are not attacking American targets because of the video: namely, America itself.

If Islam is necessarily a violent and easily offended religion, why have Muslims in the United States itself spent more time condemning the attacks on the embassies than the video? Could it be that Muslims are not a monolithic bloc? Unfortunately, it seems unlikely people holding such views will actually ask themselves these questions, as the Islamaphobic Right and nuance have never been the closest of acquaintances.

But one can go too far the other way too. The moral issues here are very clear. Nothing, let alone this video, justifies attacking diplomats. The inviolability of ambassadors is the most fundamental part of international law since time immemorial and those who infringe upon it deserve the nothing but contempt.

Voltaire’s maxim (“I may not agree with what you have to say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”) may be overused, but it remains true all the same. Freedom of speech and religion are our two most sacred rights as Americans and we should never compromise them to avoid offending some one’s sensibilities. No matter how terrible that movie was, the right to make it is something all Americans should line up to defend. People in other countries need to understand that.

In the end, I am confident that the liberal arts education you will receive here will guide you to the right approach. Look at the world with nuance and understanding, but never compromise on what is right. And again, welcome to Knox.

Matt Barry
Matt Barry is a senior majoring in international relations and double minoring in economics and German. This is his third year working for TKS, having served previously as discourse editor. He has worked for such organizations as the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Premier Tourism Marketing and the Council on American Islamic Relations-Chicago, where his work appeared in such publications as Leisure Group Travel, Ski & Ride Club Guide and The Chicago Monitor. Matt has written his political opinion column, "The Voice of Reason," weekly for three years, which finished in first place at the 2012 Illinois College Press Association conference and was also recognized at the 2013 conference.

Tags:  conflict embassy muslim western

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