The latest wave of Muslim hysteria and violence has now spread to over twenty countries. The walls of our embassies and consulates have been breached, their precincts abandoned to triumphant mobs, and many people have been murdered—all in response to an unwatchable Internet video titled “Innocence of Muslims.” Whether over a film, a cartoon, a novel, a beauty pageant, or an inauspiciously named teddy bear, the coming eruption of pious rage is now as predictable as the dawn. This is already an old and boring story about old, boring, and deadly ideas. And I fear it will be with us for the rest of our lives.
Our panic and moral confusion were at first sublimated in attacks upon the hapless Governor Romney. I am no fan of Romney’s, and I would find the prospect of his presidency risible if it were not so depressing, but he did accurately detect the first bleats of fear in the Obama administration’s reaction to this crisis. Romney got the timing of events wrong—confusing, as many did, a statement made by the U.S. Embassy in Cairo for an official government response to the murder of Americans in Libya. But the truth is that the White House struck the same note of apology, disavowing the offending speech while claiming to protect free speech in principle. It may seem a small detail, given the heat of the moment—but so is a quivering lip.
Our government followed the path of appeasement further by attempting to silence the irrepressible crackpot Pastor Terry Jones, who had left off burning copies of the Qur’an just long enough to promote the film. The administration also requested that Google remove “Innocence of Muslims” from its servers. These maneuvers attest to one of two psychological and diplomatic realities: Either our government is unwilling to address the problem at hand, or the problem is so vast and terrifying that we have decided to placate the barbarians at the gate.
The contagion of moral cowardice followed its usual course, wherein liberal journalists and pundits began to reconsider our most basic freedoms in light of the sadomasochistic fury known as “religious sensitivity” among Muslims. Contributors to The New York Times and NPR spoke of the need to find a balance between free speech and freedom of religion—as though the latter could possibly be infringed by a YouTube video. As predictable as Muslim bullying has become, the moral confusion of secular liberals appears to be part of the same clockwork.
Consider what is actually happening: Some percentage of the world’s Muslims—Five percent? Fifteen? Fifty? It’s not yet clear—is demanding that all non-Muslims conform to the strictures of Islamic law. And where they do not immediately resort to violence in their protests, they threaten it. Carrying a sign that reads “Behead Those Who Insult the Prophet” may still count as an example of peaceful protest, but it is also an assurance that infidel blood would be shed if the imbecile holding the placard only had more power. This grotesque promise is, of course, fulfilled in nearly every Muslim society. To make a film like “Innocence of Muslims” anywhere in the Middle East would be as sure a method of suicide as the laws of physics allow.
What exactly was in the film? Who made it? What were their motives? Was Muhammad really depicted? Was that a Qur’an burning, or some other book? Questions of this kind are obscene. Here is where the line must be drawn and defended without apology: We are free to burn the Qur’an or any other book, and to criticize Muhammad or any other human being. Let no one forget it.
At moments like this, we inevitably hear—from people who don’t know what it’s like to believe in paradise—that religion is just a way of channeling popular unrest. The true source of the problem can be found in the history of western aggression in the region. It is our policies, rather than our freedoms, that they hate. I believe that the future of liberalism—and much else—depends on our overcoming this ruinous self-deception. Religion only works as a pretext for political violence because many millions of people actually believe what they say they believe: that imaginary crimes like blasphemy and apostasy are killing offenses.