by Cinnamon Stillwell
In the wake of the al-Qaeda attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya on Sept. 11, 2012, the seizure of the American embassy in Cairo, Egypt, and the ensuing anti-American protests and riots throughout the Middle East—the latter ostensibly over an anti-Islam YouTube film trailer that originated in the U.S. months earlier—what do Middle East scholars have to say about the turmoil in the region?
As self-styled supporters of “academic freedom,” are they rushing to defend First Amendment rights instead of kowtowing to Muslim religious sensibilities? Are they denouncing the prospect of self-censorship rather than pushing YouTube to pull the “offending” video by claiming that it constitutes “hate speech?” Are they standing up for religious freedom instead of encouraging Americans to adhere to Sharia law-driven prohibitions on blasphemy? Are they putting aside their anti-Western biases and laying blame where it belongs instead of on America and Israel?
If the following quotes from Middle East studies academics are any indication, the answer to all those questions would be a resounding No!
Let’s take a look at what these “experts” have to say.
On First Amendment rights:
Bruce Lawrence, professor emeritus of religion and member of the Islamic Studies Center’s advisory board, Duke University:
But what about hate speech? Is hate speech not a category that impinges on, and limits, the practice of free speech?Omid Safi, professor of Islamic studies, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill:
In reality, pieces like the ‘Innocence of Muslims’ [sic] so-called film are best classified as ‘hate speech,’ as they seem to be of the same genre as anti-Semitic films of the 1930’s or Birth of the [sic] Nation KKK movies.Tariq Ramadan, professor of contemporary Islamic studies, Oxford University:
[B]ehind the celebration of freedom of speech hides the arrogance of ideologists and well-fed racists who feed off the multiform humiliation of Muslims and to demonstrate the clear ‘superiority’ of their civilisation or the validity of their resistance to the ‘cancer’ of retrograde Islam.John Brown, adjunct professor of liberal studies, Georgetown University:
Every culture or group of cultures has its own red lines. They might be legal red lines, but they are cultural red lines. There are taboos there are things people cannot say in public. In my experience, you just don’t speak badly of the Prophet Muhammad. It just does not happen.John Esposito, director of the Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, Georgetown University:
Indeed, it’s important to remember that, for Muslims, Mohammed is the ideal Muslim, as it was. He’s the living Quran. You know, he’s the model, you know. And so to go after him, OK, is to be the ultimate form, you know, the ultimate form of disrespect. It would be the ultimate blasphemy. . . . I think there’s a recognition of the freedom of speech, but you know, you still get into freedom of speech and then what are the consequences of it? . . . And so what you really have is a situation where this belongs to the genre of Islam-aphobia, which is just like [sic] anti-Semitic.As’ad AbuKhalil, professor of political science, California State University, Stanislaus:
U.S. officials have been really insulting my intelligence all week with talk of the ‘freedom of speech’ that we have here in the U.S. that Muslims don’t understand. . . . They understand that the U.S. government has made it illegal for anyone to express support for Hamas and Hizbullah in the U.S. Muslim[s] do understand that the U.S. has banned TV channels [Hezbollah’s Al-Manar and Hamas’s Al-Aqsa TV] from the U.S. because they deemed them offensive to Israel. . . . We remember that the Bush administration asked all U.S. news media after Sept. 11 to refrain from airing any Bin Laden tapes.Omid Safi, professor of Islamic studies, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill:
Freedom of speech falls alongside other freedoms to live and be free from bombs falling on people’s heads and to be free from occupations . . . I will take free speech comments seriously when others take people’s freedom of life and dignity and to be free from occupation just as seriously.On why YouTube should pull the video, “Innocence of Muslims”:
Hatem Bazian, Near Eastern studies senior lecturer, University of California, Berkeley:
Take the ethical high ground and say, ‘yes, I understand that I have the legal right to do it. But ethically, I need to actually say no to it, because it does not represent the best of our values.’ I would say even to put it in the recycling bin would be an insult to the recycling bin.John Brown, adjunct professor of liberal studies, Georgetown University:
This movie reached new depths . . . I find it difficult that the most insulting thing ever made about the Prophet Muhammad in the history of Western civilization, as far as I know, doesn’t violate usage [Youtube usage] policy.On blaming America, and Israel, and the West:
Stephen Zunes, professor of politics and international studies and director of the Middle East studies program, University of San Francisco:
It is extremely unlikely that such vitriolic anti-American protests would have taken place were it not for decades of U.S. support, during both Republican and Democratic administrations, of allied dictatorships and the Israeli occupation, not to mention the invasion and occupation of Iraq and the ongoing military strikes in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen.John Esposito, director of the Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, Georgetown University:
The terrorist attack on the US consulate in Benghazi that killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three embassy staff, and the Cairo riots seem similar but share in common the incitement and exploitation of popular outrage among many Muslims, as we have witnessed during the Salman Rushdie and Danish cartoons affairs. They exploit deep seated popular anti-American sentiment, based on decades of resentment over US and European foreign policies in the Middle East.Juan Cole, Richard P. Mitchell Collegiate Professor of History, University of Michigan:
The touchiness of Muslims about assaults on the Prophet Muhammad is in part rooted in centuries of Western colonialism and neo-colonialism during which their religion was routinely denounced as barbaric by the people ruling and lording it over them.Mark LeVine, professor of history, University of California, Irvine:
Muslims in Egypt, Libya and around the world equally look at American actions, from sanctions against and then an invasion of Iraq that killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and sent the country back to the Stone Age, to unflinching support for Israel and all the Arab authoritarian regimes (secular and royal alike) and drone strikes that always seem to kill unintended civilians ‘by mistake,’ and wonder with equal bewilderment how ‘we’ can be so barbaric and uncivilized.Hamid Dabashi, Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature, Columbia University:
Sam Bacile [the pseudonym for the alleged filmmaker, Nakoula Basseley Nakoula] is integral to a pattern, an Islamophobic streak of racism that runs deep into American culture.Juan Cole, Richard P. Mitchell Collegiate Professor of History, University of Michigan:
From the 9/11 attacks to the embassy burnings of this past week, the U.S. pays the price for supporting the subjection of the Palestinians in widespread hatred for it from the Muslim world.On downplaying the violent reaction of the Muslim world:
Dalia Mogahed, Executive Director of the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies, co-author, with Georgetown University’s John Esposito, of Who Speaks for Islam?: What a Billion Muslims Really Think, and nonresident senior public policy scholar at the American University of Beirut:
So I think it would just be too much of a generalization to say Muslims react violently when they’re offended, whereas everyone else reacts peacefully. I think that riots and protests turn violent all over the world.Also:
The other thing to keep in mind is that, sometimes, when there are offensive materials here in this country, people do protest against them and I think that that’s also part of freedom of speech that we have to look at and respect.Juan Cole, Richard P. Mitchell Collegiate Professor of History, University of Michigan:
[D]efending the Prophet and defending the post-colonial nation are for the most part indistinguishable, and being touchy over slights to national identity (and yes, Muslimness is a kind of national identity in today’s world) is hardly confined to Muslims.Bruce Lawrence, emeritus professor of religion and member of the Islamic Studies Center’s advisory board, Duke University:
Should Muslim sensitivities be viewed any differently from their Jewish or Christian counterparts? Muslims do monitor their prophet. His legacy has been challenged within Islam at many levels, but his basic character has not been besmirched with the degree of ill will, bordering on savagery, that has been seen in the past 12 years.Whether it be John Esposito toeing the line of his Wahhabi funders; Omid Safi engaging in irresponsible, inflammatory rhetoric; Stephen Zunes blaming the U.S. and Israel for all that’s wrong with the world; Dalia Mogahed whitewashing Islamism; As’ad AbuKhalil justifying violence; Mark LeVine exhibiting contempt for America; or Juan Cole displaying the same disregard for the First Amendment he showed when he called for the U.S. government to shut down Fox News these are the ideologues to whom the Western media turns for insight into the Middle East. Anyone hoping to understand the turmoil in the region as the consequences of the “Arab Spring” continue to unfold should look elsewhere.
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