On 9 September 2012 a deadly attack took place on the consulate in Benghazi (Libya) killing the U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three members of the security personnel. This occurred when a mob of protesters and gunmen overwhelmed the building, setting fire to it out of indignation over a film that had been posted on the internet. The trailer of the film had gone viral on YouTube, depicting the Prophet Muhammad in disrespectful ways. The film, made by a man who identifies himself as Sam Basile (probably a pseudonym) ridicules Islam’s Prophet Muhammad.
It is another manifestation of a protracted problem that politicians both within the western world and outside have not been able to solve: the tension between on the one hand liberal democracy’s freedoms of religion and freedom of speech (including heterodox religion and offensive speech) and on the other hand religious extremism, precisely targeting those freedoms and intimidating the makers of films, authors of books and artists.
Afghanistan decided to censor YouTube. President Karzai said that the makers of the film had committed a “devilish act”. He spoke of an “inhuman and abusive act” and a“desecrating act”, which has caused “enmity and confrontation between the religions and cultures of the world”. The Afghan statement further condemned the act by saying it “badly impacted the peaceful coexistence between human beings”. Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi urged the United States to prosecute the “madman” behind the video. Also the Iranian government condemned the film as “an insult to sacred Muslim figures”.
The maker of the film has gone into hiding and CNN showed an actress in the film crying before the camera. She was misled by the maker of the film, the actress claimed, and she indicated she felt so sorry because she had never thought she could be instrumental in the killing of an American diplomat. YouTube “temporarily restricted access” to the video in Egypt and Libya. An extraordinary move was also that Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called to Terry Jones, the anti-Islamic preacher and activist who had previously burned Qurans, to stop promoting the film.
The Republican nominee, Mitt Romney, criticized the Obama administration for their statements expressing sympathy for those who had been insulted by the video. What was necessary here was condemning the attacks and defending our values.
What all these events seems to teach us is that the matter that first came to the attention of a worldwide audience with the Cartoon Affair in 2005 has still not been resolved. Fundamentalists are determined to punish satire and religious criticism that are protected by human rights and civil liberties in the western world. They do not only punish their nationals, but people all over the world who dare to offend their religious icons. The great question is whether countries committed to civil liberties and human rights will have the ambition and resourcefulness to withstand that pressure.
American Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said “the world needs more Chris Stevenses” and that he would be remembered “as a hero by many nations”. But the bitter irony is that Stevens did not die for some heroic act but for simply being an American. He died because the American government has not yet completely given in to the demands of the terrorists to prosecute and condemn people who use their first amendment rights. Theo van Gogh (1957-2004) died for the stances that he took. Rushdie’s Japanese translator Hitoshi Igarashi (1947-1991) died for a translation he had made. Kurt Westergaard (b. 1935) narrowly escaped death on 1 January 2010 for a cartoon he had drawn five years earlier.
It seems we’re in for some rough weather. Let us hope our political leaders get their moral priorities straight.