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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 / September 13, 2012

A protester chants slogans during a protest march to the US embassy in Sanaa, Yemen, Thursday.

Mohamed al-Sayaghi/Reuters


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.

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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.

“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.”


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