“Never give in–never, never, never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy”.
Sir Winston Churchill, Speech, 1941, Harrow School
If someone were to prepare a recipe to acquire political power, I cannot think of a more powerful one than the following: add a big dose of an emotionally explosive component, that can stir the basest human instincts of your fellow humans and spice it up with distorted representations of another community that can be used as a target for violent attacks. The most successful example of the first ingredient is dogmatic religious belief and the most efficient choice for the second one continues to be a different nation or ethnic group. One will provide you with unquestionable authority, impervious to rational argument, and the other with a target to focus your followers’ fears and frustrations.
Most of the Western European countries have excelled at delivering countless varieties of this lethal dish over centuries. Thankfully, the heroic efforts of enlightened thinkers and the sacrifice of many in violent conflict has led to the acknowledgement of political methods, values and legislation to mitigate the proliferation of that poisonous combination. Yet, the recent establishment of democracies in countries like Libya and Egypt has created the perfect environment for ruthless manipulators that are keen to try their hands at recreating that recipe for disaster. After the excitement and hope brought about by the Arab Spring, the murder of the US ambassador in Libya and the tide of violence unleashed across the Middle East have reminded us that democracy and freedom are difficult to achieve and harder to preserve.
Let’s consider the evidence in more detail. First, we have a ludicrous film clearly produced to ridicule Islam that provides the perfect excuse to draw crowds under the banner of protecting the faith. Secondly, that same film happens to have been produced in the USA, a nation easy to be portrayed as the social incarnation of all evil in the eyes of muslim fundamentalists. Thirdly, plenty of radicals and opportunists in Middle-Eastern countries. Countries whose governments are still trying to assert their legitimacy and are under extreme pressure to rebuild their nations after decade-long dictatorships. A single package with all the ingredients in the right place and at the right time, what could be more tempting to budding tyrants in the area?
Any intelligent person, regardless of religious creed, would not fail to appreciate that even the most atrocious actions of a private citizen in one country, do not justify holding responsible, attacking and killing political representatives of that country, let alone plundering schools and attacking embassies of other countries. Yet, that is exactly the blatant non-sequitur offered as the justification behind the riots and murders. Let’s not confuse the excuse with the real drivers behind an action. Even allowing for the unpredictability of mobs and the magnifying effect of press coverage to unintentionally stimulate copycat behaviour, there is little doubt that we are witnessing an exercise of political manipulation. Manipulation by those that, above all, fear the idea that authority should be earned by persuading others through free debate and that free enquiry and critical thinking should be encouraged and protected. It is that fear, in my opinion, and the establishment of new democracies in their countries or neighbouring ones that exacerbates their desire to undermine vulnerable governments by promoting street violence. It is not the first time that fanatical clergy of various creeds and armed militias try to assert their authority at a time when after a regime change, there is power to be gained.
The first response against those forces of obscurantism ought to be depriving them of their excuses. Freedom of speech is not a special aspect of Western culture that might be qualified out of respect for others. Free speech is a condition of legitimate government as democratic decisions can only have real legitimacy if they are the outcome of truly free debate and inquiry.
Furthermore, ridicule is a type of expression and nobody, whether Christian, Muslim, Atheist, Jewish, etc. can be granted special protection against it. We must accept it even when directed against us and deprived of any artistic merit. It can be of course criticised and subject to ridicule itself but resorting to violence to suppress it is not an option. As the philosopher Ronald Dworkin has highlighted, “that principle is of particular importance in a nation that strives for racial or ethnic fairness. If weak or unpopular minorities wish to be protected from economic and legal discrimination by law–if they wish laws enacted that prohibit discrimination against them in employment, for instance–then they must be willing to tolerate whatever insults or ridicule people who oppose such legislation wish to offer to their fellow voters, because only a community that permits such insult as part of public debate may legitimately adopt such laws”.
We cannot allow any religious group to impose on others their criteria on what should be written, filmed or drawn. That is the price we all must pay to protect the free exercise of thought and expression. Nobody says that toleration is a sweet pill to swallow and that is why it must be applied to all without exception. In these cases, blasphemy cannot be accepted as a limit and anyone offended by it will have the same right to voice their criticism as long as they do not use violence.
But, what if physical violence is the response? Then the answer to those fanatics must be unequivocal: they must be arrested, tried and punished in accordance with the gravity of their actions. There will not be any special treatment or lenience just because religion is involved in the dispute. If we fail to follow that course of action out of fear, it will only provide a powerful incentive for those who do not want to see their views criticized to engage in violent protests in future.
Needless to say, upholding those principles will be a painful and difficult battle. That is why far from abandoning the Middle East and North Africa, the US and other democracies should re-double their efforts and presence in the region. Now, more than ever, the democratic government and forces in Libya and other countries need our support to fight the grab for power from both fanatics and opportunists. But, in the process, we must not forget what we are protecting even when some people might abuse those freedoms and certainly, we must not flee or give in to blackmail.