The following essay, published at Newsweek and The Daily Beast by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, is a must-read for those genuinely interested in understanding what’s at stake in the West’s largely craven reaction to the murder, by Libyan Islamists, of U.S. Ambassador Chris Steven, and the deadly riots throughout the Muslim world following the release of a video critical of Islam.
Ali was born in Mogadishu, Somalia, and escaped an arranged marriage by immigrating to the Netherlands in 1992. She served as a member of the Dutch parliament from 2003 to 2006 and is currently a fellow of the Future of Diplomacy Project at Harvard University – Adam Levick
It is a strange and bitter coincidence that the latest eruption of violent Islamic indignation takes place just as Salman Rushdie publishes his new book, Joseph Anton: A Memoir, about his life under the fatwa.
In 23 years not much has changed.
Islam’s rage reared its ugly head again last week. The American ambassador to Libya and three of his staff members were murdered by a raging mob in Benghazi, Libya, possibly under the cover of protests against a film mocking the Muslim Prophet Muhammad.
They were killed on the watch of the democratic government they helped to install. This government was either negligent or complicit in their murders. And that forces the U.S. to confront a stark, unwelcome reality.
Until recently, it was completely justifiable to feel sorry for the masses in Libya because they suffered under the thumb of a cruel dictator. But now they are no longer subjects; they are citizens. They have the opportunity to elect a government and build a society of their choice. Will they follow the lead of the Egyptian people and elect a government that stands for ideals diametrically opposed to those upheld by the United States? They might. But if they do, we should not consider them stupid or infantile. We should recognize that they have made a free choice—a choice to reject freedom as the West understands it.
How should American leaders respond? What should they say and do, for example, when a spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s newly elected ruling party, demands a formal apology from the United States government and urges that the “madmen” behind the Muhammad video be prosecuted, in violation of the First Amendment? If the U.S. follows the example of Europe over the last two decades, it will bend over backward to avoid further offense. And that would be a grave mistake—for the West no less than for those Muslims struggling to build a brighter future.
For a homicidal few in the Muslim world, life itself has less value than religious icons, such as the prophet or the Quran. These few are indifferent to the particular motives or arguments behind any perceived insult to their faith. They do not care about an individual’s political alignment, gender, religion, or occupation. They do not care whether the provocation comes from serious literature or a stupid movie. All that matters is the intolerable nature of the insult.
The riots in Muslim countries—and the so-called demonstrations by some Muslims in Western countries—that invariably accompany such provocations have the appearance of spontaneity. But they are often carefully planned in advance. In the aftermath of last week’s conflagration, the State Department and Pentagon were investigating if it was just such a coordinated, planned assault.
The Muslim men and women (and yes, there are plenty of women) who support—whether actively or passively—the idea that blasphemers deserve to suffer punishment are not a fringe group. On the contrary, they represent the mainstream of contemporary Islam. Of course, there are many Muslims and ex-Muslims, in Libya, Egypt, and elsewhere, who unambiguously condemn not only the murders and riots, as well as the idea that dissenters from this mainstream should be punished. But they are marginalized and all too often indirectly held responsible for the very provocation. In the age of globalization and mass immigration, such intolerance has crossed borders and become the defining characteristic of Islam.
And the defining characteristic of the Western response? As Rushdie’s memoir makes clear, it is the utterly incoherent tendency to simultaneously defend free speech—and to condemn its results.
I know something about the subject. In 1989, when I was 19, I piously, even gleefully, participated in a rally in Kenya to burn Rushdie’s book The Satanic Verses. I had never read it.
Later, having fled an arranged marriage to the Netherlands, I broke from fundamentalism. By the time of Sept. 11, 2001, I still considered myself a Muslim, though a passive one; I believed the principles but not the practice. After learning that it was Muslims who had hijacked airplanes and flown them into buildings in New York and Washington, I called for fellow believers to reflect on how our religion could have inspired these atrocious acts. A few months later, I confessed in a television interview that I had been secularized.