Free speech vs. reverence for Muhammad: Can they coexist?

The violence in Egypt, Libya, and Yemen show the results of American ideals clashing with those of nascent Arab democracies. Caught in between are American Muslims.

By , Staff writer

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    A protester chants slogans during a protest march to the US embassy in Sanaa, Yemen, Thursday.
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The continuing protests in the Middle East over a low-budget American-made film that insults the Prophet Muhammad have laid bare the clash of two fundamentally different worldviews that are increasingly colliding yet show few signs of compromise.

Americans demand that Muslims respect one of the cornerstones of their nation – free speech – while Muslims demand that Americans respect the revered place that Muhammad holds in their faith. American ideals, broadcast over YouTube and Facebook, have met Mideast democracy in its still-raw forms post-Arab Spring, and the results have been combustible.

Caught in between are American Muslims, who overwhelmingly reject violence and broadly support free-speech rights but also feel anger and frustration at depictions of Muhammad they find grievously offensive.

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“It’s really unfortunate,” says Deanna Nassar, the Hollywood liaison for the Muslim Public Affairs Council, which works to correct stereotypes about Muslims. US Muslims “take steps forward, and we take steps back, and this is clearly a big step back.”

The concern is partly about retaliation against Muslims in the US, but more about what the episode will do to many Americas’ already skeptical attitudes toward Muslims, says Ebrahim Mossa, a professor of Islamic studies at Duke University in Durham, N.C.

The YouTube trailer of the film at the center of the furor, “Innocence of Muslims,” paints Muhammad as a murderous philanderer. Since Tuesday, protests have broken out in Egypt, Libya, and Yemen, with the US ambassador to Libya and three staff members killed at the US consulate in Benghazi Tuesday.

One Egyptian protester said the violence was a natural response to the film. “This is a very simple reaction to harming our prophet,” Abdel-Hamid Ibrahim told AP. Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood party, has been slow to reject the violence.

By contrast, American leaders have unanimously condemned of the violence. Some, including Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, also singled out the film as “disgusting and reprehensible.” But none suggested that US should ban it.

Indeed, when a tweet by the US Embassy in Cairo appeared to sympathize with the protesters, saying the US “condemns the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims,” it was pilloried by Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who called the statement “disgraceful.”

The Baltimore Sun’s editorial board echoed his sentiment Wednesday when it wrote: “The only responsibility the United States, as a government and as a society, bears for the offensive and misguided sentiments expressed in this film is to have created a system in which speech is protected even when it is abhorrent, and that is something we will not change and which we cannot hide.”

A recent Public Religion Research Institute survey found that 47 percent of Americans say the values of Islam are at odds with American values. Yet among US Muslims, 6 in 10 say they see no conflicts between being a devout Muslim and living in modern society – precisely the same ratio as devout American Christians answering the question in the same way, according to a 2011 Gallup poll.

To be sure, a majority of Muslims say violence is an inappropriate response – even to such brazen blasphemy, pollsters say.

“The vast majority of Muslims would definitely be offended by the movie, but I don’t think the vast majority of people support to any degree the notion that the US ambassador should be targeted,” says Mohamed Younis, a senior analyst at the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies in Washington. “In Egypt, there’s an overwhelming majority of people who say you cannot target civilians, and similarly in Libya, we don’t see any overwhelming support for the idea that [blaspheming the Prophet should lead to] targeting and killing civilians.”

In some quarters, the notion that blasphemy against Muhammad should punishable by death is being quietly challenged by some scholars who say it is not scriptural but traditional. “That whole doctrine has now come up for a lot of debate among Muslim theologians, but only the bravest ones can touch this thing, because it comes at one heck of a cost,” says Professor Moosa of Duke.

Indeed, for some American Muslims, the outbreak of violence in the Middle East begs that deeper question: What does it mean faithfully to follow the teachings of Muhammad?

“That’s the baffling thing to me, above all, when it comes down to it, when your goal is to honor and protect the dignity of the Prophet, it seems to me that the best way to do this is to follow his example and how he would respond to something like this, and his response was always consistently to be kind and to forgive,” says Ms. Nassar of the Muslim Public Affairs Council.

“As Muslims, we have to become more confident in our faith and belief, and in our Prophet, and know the Prophet is going to be just fine – his character stands alone and our job is to exemplify that character, period,” she says. “Yes, it hurts my feelings when I see things about the Prophet, but it hurts even more to see the violence perpetrated in response to it.”

What also hurts is that so much of the misunderstanding appears to be born of willful ignorance.

“My argument would be that a lot has been written against Islam and about the Quran and the Prophet in the last 10, 15 years, and most of it has not been written at an intellectual level,” says Naeem Baig, a spokesman for the Islamic Circle of North America, a social service organization with at least 16,000 members and 36 chapters throughout the country. “If there’s an intellectual debate [about theological law], we can understand that, but when it is done solely for the purpose of ridiculing something, does that serve a purpose?”

“This is unfortunate and sad, and especially that [Ambassador] Christopher Stevens was killed,” he adds. “Right now, it’s just very sad for me, I’m just trying to cope, figure out what is happening and think of what could be a proper response.”

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