From the midst of Mideast riots, a positive sign in Israel?

By now, you’re familiar with the events of the past few days: pseudo-Israeli (i.e. Egyptian-born ex-con) makes trailer promoting a fake movie entitled ‘The Innocence of Muslims’, setting off deadly riots across much of the Muslim world.

The story fits into a neat framework for debate, highlighting the classic tension between prudence and freedom of speech: while Western society purports to defend absolute freedom of speech, how far are we willing to go when we know that speech will have predictably bloody consequences?

And if you suspect I made that question up, I would point you to the Christian Science Monitor:

Some may argue that the best way to end this vicious cycle of hateful message-and-response is to stifle the message. But – putting aside the question of whether this is the best course of action – is it even a legal option? Can the US government act to stop the circulation of offensive material like this? Can someone else?

And though the article quickly settles the legal question (‘The answer in the American system of government is simple: no.’), the remainder is dedicated to entertaining the possibility of ‘someone else’ stepping into the gap: CSN entertains the possibility of websites like Youtube, Google, and others voluntarily taking down provocative material.

But just how predictable are those bloody consequences? According to some, like Oxford-trained international attorney Andrew Rosemarine, very:

Shame on the film-maker and his assistants!  It was bound to end in bloodshed. One can debate others’ beliefs fairly, but a gratuitously tasteless and indecent film is inexcusable, and certain to have explosive results, when Muslim sensibilities are targeted.

In other words, violence is terrible, but violence is what Muslims do – and given what we know will happen, we would be wise not to provoke them.

And Rosemarine is not alone in his assessment. The Vatican also released a statement focusing on ‘unjustified offence and provocations’. But you don’t have to take my word for it:

Profound respect for the beliefs, texts, outstanding figures and symbols of the various religions is an essential precondition for the peaceful coexistence of peoples. The serious consequences of unjustified offence and provocations against the sensibilities of Muslim believers are once again evident in these days, as we see the reactions they arouse, sometimes with tragic results, which in their turn nourish tension and hatred, unleashing unacceptable violence.

The message of dialogue and respect for all believers of different religions, which the Holy Father is preparing to carry with him on his forthcoming trip to Lebanon, indicate the path that everyone should follow in order to construct shared and peaceful coexistence among religions and peoples.

And based on the headlines, it seems Rosemarine has a point: input one movie ridiculing Mohammed, and receive the same anti-American, out-of-control, deadly reaction all across the Arab world:

Clouds of tear gas wafted over the hulks of burned-out cars Thursday as hundreds of demonstrators battled police 300 yards from the embassy. The demonstrators threw rocks and Molotov cocktails at police and chanted, “With our souls, with our blood, we will sacrifice for you, Prophet Mohammed.” At least 224 people were injured, according to Egyptian state television, Nile TV.

– Protests near U.S. Embassy in Cairo continue after Obama warning

SANAA, Yemen (AP) — Chanting “death to America,” hundreds of protesters angered by an anti-Islam film stormed the U.S. Embassy compound in Yemen’s capital and burned the American flag on Thursday, the latest in a series of attacks on American diplomatic missions in the Middle East.

– Protesters storm US Embassy in Yemen

Anti-American rioting spread yesterday to Tunisia, where police used tear gas to stop hundreds of protesters from storming the United States Embassy in protest over a film mocking the prophet Mohammed.

The throngs of demonstrators, who carried the white and black banners of militant Salifist Muslims, had been protesting peacefully in Tunis for hours when about 300 started to break through the gates.

– Riots spread into Tunisia

Sudanese demonstrators incensed by a film that insults the Prophet Mohammad broke into the German embassy in Khartoum on Friday and hoisted an Islamic flag, while one person was killed in protests in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli.

– Sudanese storm German embassy, hoist Islamic flag

But while violent riots in Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Tunisia, Iraq, Sudan, Lebanon, Bangladesh, Afghanistan and elsewhere may point toward a uniform, predictable response to the Innocence Offense of Muslims, I would argue that this sort of reaction is not wholly spontaneous and unavoidable.

In an op-ed of his own, PhD candidate Zev Farber takes Rosemarine to task for seemingly absolving rioting Muslims of any serious responsibility:

Apparently, Rosemarine believes that adult Muslims, upon seeing an ad for a film insulting Mohamed, could not help themselves and had no choice but to murder the American ambassador to Libya (who had no part in the making of the film.) Now Rosemarine doesn’t actually say this. In fact, he says the opposite, calling the violence “wholly unacceptable.” And yet, his claim that the violent reaction of the Muslim community was inevitable (“bound to end in bloodshed”) implies that they had no choice.

And here, Farber zeroes in – I think correctly – on the key issue:

One can speculate that Rosemarine, and others who may share his view, are pragmatists. The Muslim community should not respond with violence, but it will. Maybe. Even so, I prefer to put the matter differently. For whatever reason, in our world certain Muslims will choose not to control themselves; they can, but they won’t. Perhaps they feel they can get away with it, perhaps they feel it is justified, perhaps there is some other reason I cannot yet think of. The point is, though, from our Western perspective, it does not matter.

This sort of behavior is unacceptable. It is also a choice. It is not necessary. It is not inevitable. It is not an act of nature. It is certainly not an act of God. It is about a choice people made – not about a film people made – and those people should be held strictly responsible for their unacceptable behavior. Consider the difference between what happened in the countries named above, and in another country known for its sometimes-violent Muslim population, Israel:

A few dozen members of the Islamic Movement in Israel held a nonviolent protest outside the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv on Thursday, holding banners saying “freedom of speech does not equal insulting the prophet Muhammad” and denouncing a film about Islam that has triggered protests in the Arab world as a “base and despicable act.”

And despite warnings of ‘Armageddon’ from certain Israeli-Arab leaders, there were no riots, no tear gas, no looting – in short, no signs of violence. Fifty people showed up, waved signs, and went home. They’ll probably be back, and maybe sometime between now and Friday afternoon, they’ll reconsider their conclusion that non-violence is the way to go – but for now, all indications are positive.

Now, there are obviously differences between Muslims living in Israel and those living in Egypt, Libya, and other countries that have seen riots: there are only one-and-a-half million of them, they don’t tend to live near the US Embassy in Tel Aviv, they know the government is not going to give them a rubber stamp, that the police force is not going to tolerate any shenanigans, and that there exists the rule of law. And of course, it’s possible that they’ve simply decided that this is not their fight.

But that’s precisely the point: they decided.

Israeli Muslims saw the same trailer that so outraged their co-religionists, measured their response, and chose to express disapproval through non-violent protest. And with the West Bank currently embroiled in (largely peaceful) protests, I’m happy to take any positive sign that – however the Arab Spring ultimately manifests itself in Israel and the Palestinian territories – the situation will not be resolved through Intifadah, Round 3.

And perhaps, one day, other Muslims will choose to decide the same way.

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