By Lisa Beyer
When Westerners mock Islam and thus run the risk of provoking Muslims to commit mayhem, it's tempting to excoriate the mockers.
That's what the U.S. Embassy in Egypt did, after word got out about a trailer on YouTube for a vulgar, amateurish U.S.-produced video depicting the prophet Muhammad as a pederast-recruiting idiot who receives the inspiration for Islam while burying his head between the thighs of a woman. The embassy condemned "misguided individuals" who "hurt the religious feelings of Muslims."
It was for naught. Rioters stormed the embassy in Cairo and attempted to do the same in Tunis. Protests broke out in the Gaza Strip. In Afghanistan, the Taliban called on citizens to "take revenge" on Americans. Worst, in Libya, a rocket attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi claimed the lives of four U.S. diplomats, including Ambassador Chris Stevens. The U.S. is exploring the possibility that the Benghazi attack was planned, with perpetrators exploiting outrage over the video for timing.
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney caught flak for criticizing the embassy's statement, which he apparently thought came after the killings. At any rate the statement was trumped by President Barack Obama's later remarks denouncing the attack "in the strongest terms" and vowing to work with the Libyans to bring the perpetrators to justice. Still, the embassy's commentary, issued even as protesters were amassing outside the compound, was light on principles of free speech.
Of course, the price of free speech is a lot of bad speech, some of it offensive. The video "The Innocence of Muslims," which was clearly designed to denigrate Islam, certainly falls into that category. But it ought not to have been a provocation for killing.
In the past, Arab leaders could have hoped to keep such blasphemies beyond their population's reach. Culture today, however, is instant and global. With speech being free -- if sometimes misguided -- in at least half the world, there is sure to be more derision of Islam in the future. The question is whether the Arab world will adjust.
Hypersensitivity to ridicule is not the only way in which the Muslim world stands out. As the annual index compiled by Freedom House makes clear, individuals living in the Middle East and North Africa are the least free anywhere. They have limited rights to elect their representatives but also to express themselves, to assemble and to practice or not practice religion as they like, all of which adds up to constraints on freedom of thought.
Where people can't think freely, they don't think well. That's one reason the Arab world lags in economic development and, in particular, innovation.
In 2002, the first of five (so far) ground-breaking Arab Human Development Reports authored by Arab intellectuals and scholars laid out some of the relevant indicators. For instance, the number of scientific papers published in the region per capita is just 2 percent of that in industrialized countries. The paper recommended several concrete remedies: well-publicized research grants, better rewards for innovation, performance standards for universities and research organizations.
How to go beyond those measures and truly liberate young Arab minds would make a fine subject for a future report. It could start with how to allow open, tolerant discussions of religion, unfettered by the hang-ups that cause lousy YouTube postings to prompt embassy bombings.
(Lisa Beyer is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board.)
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-0- Sep/12/2012 19:35 GMT