Mitt Romney didn’t just make a clumsy political move when he came out swinging against a statement that Obama and the White House had absolutely nothing to do with, he also violated the very first rule of international affairs: shut the hell up and make sure you know exactly what is going on before you do or say anything.
As stupid as his particular actions were, however, I actually share his outrage that the West is continually bullied by a particularly nihilistic brand of Islam into compromising our values. The Left is so concerned with sensitivity that they end up tolerating what should be intolerable. In that vein, I find myself with Christopher Hitchens, wondering why American progressives can so clearly see the threat presented by hateful versions of Christianity but not that of hateful versions of Islam.
This has already been termed the “Clash of Civilizations” by pundits, but in reality the battle lines aren’t drawn neatly between the two civilizations. It would be more accurate to call it a Clash of Ideals, with advocates in both societies, and no ambiguity that those who stand for freedom and tolerance are the ones who will do the most good for universal human dignity. This struggle has already and will continue to define our generation’s foreign affairs, so let’s make sure we fight it, and fight it wisely.
First, let’s talk Foreign Policy 101. Why shouldn’t we come out guns blazing? Because acting out of a wounded sense of pride can have a cost in American lives. When the embassy in Cairo is surrounded by an angry mob, issuing a screed outlining exactly how wrong those people are sounds like an excellent way to turn a tense situation into a humanitarian tragedy. No matter your personal feelings or political preferences, sometimes you have to swallow that pride in favor of acting in a way that best manages the crisis of the moment, as the embassy in Cairo did by issuing a palliative statement to ease the tension.
When the central governments of Egypt and Libya regain a firmer grip and the U.S. Department of State has time to evaluate exactly how these attacks came about, then we can start evaluating the best means of simultaneously protecting our interests and protecting our values. We now know, for example, that the assaults on the Libyan diplomats were coordinated by attackers unrelated to the protests themselves, and who merely used them as cover. That would seem to be an important detail in coordinating a response to these actions, wouldn’t it?
Caution, patience, and treating foreign leaders with respect that they may not really deserve can all be extraordinarily frustrating to Americans who come from a culture where action and confrontation in the name of Good is more easily forgiven than passive capitulation to Evil. The problem is, exercising this instinct on the international stage is rooted in the arrogant assumption that we understand people who we probably don’t. A thing as simple as the “thumbs up” gesture, which indicates a positive satisfaction in almost the entire Western world, is the equivalent of flipping someone the bird in Iran. If for no other reason, be cautious with your words and actions so they won’t have consequences you don’t intend.
Without question, the cynical slaughter of innocent diplomats is not only a clear violation of international laws and norms, it is a morally repugnant act with no possible justification. That does not, however, mean that we should ignore the most basic lessons of foreign policy in dealing with it.
Stand for Principle
The motivation behind these attacks and protests does, however, utterly incense me: a belief that the US Government’s should exact the kind of retribution those mobs would on the creator of a stupid low-budget YouTube “movie” that says horrible things about the Prophet Muhammad.
This brand of Islam has a very strange, very dangerous, and unfortunately very old principle at its root: laws that apply to me, as a believer, must be forcibly applied to all. If that idea sounds familiar, that’s because modern evangelical Christians in the US, Catholics during the Crusades, ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel, Hindu nationalists in India, and demented adherents of every other religion that ever existed also have used this principle to justify what essentially amounts to fascism. It’s fine that depicting the Prophet is haraam for you; it’s not for me, because I don’t share your beliefs. I’m more than happy to tolerate your right to worship a spaghetti monster as long as you don’t attempt to prevent non-adherents from eating pasta because it is “sacred.”
Intelligent people can probably agree this is when religion transitions from defensible to indefensible. A Muslim demands tolerance of their religion’s right to not tolerate other peoples’ right to their set of beliefs invokes a massive hypocrisy: it fails the basic moral fairness test of universalizability, and all tenets of basic common sense.
Aside from moral bankruptcy, it’s also truly dangerous, since the fear these reactionaries are capable of instilling seriously compromises the freedoms we enjoy in our own societies.
The defining example, and one that should be considered a great stain on the West’s moral legacy, is the abject lack of political, social, and intellectual support for Salman Rushdie after Iran’s Ayatollah put him up for religiously commanded ritual assassination for writing a piece of literature. The freedom of speech in our country isn’t just limited by our common law and adjudications of the intersection of multiple rights claims; it is also limited by the bloodlust of violent psychos whose ideas we continually forgive and appease in the name of cultural sensitivity.
Therefore, we cannot apologize for those in our societies who exercise that right. We cannot decry and shame even the most idiotic expressions by the most idiotic expressers (of which Sam Bacile is doubtless a member) without simultaneously unambiguously defending their right to be complete idiots. We cannot make statements like President Obama did when he said we reject the “denigration” of faiths, because official tolerance of that very denigration is precisely what makes our right to free expression meaningful. We cannot, like basically all American officials did, apologize by invoking our culture of religious tolerance and only decrying those who did the direct violence, not the protesters who carry the banner of hatred.
Importantly, however, the obligation to fight for these values does not end in the West. The average people of majority-Muslim countries have every bit as much at stake as we do. Too often, however, so-called “moderates” will dampen their outrage against this dangerous intolerance by saying that they actually agree Islam shouldn’t be insulted, and some even say there should be consequences for doing so. We understand that “not all Muslims are like the radicals” but just because they are not actively supporting that group does not abdicate those Muslims’ responsibility to fight for tolerance of Western belief systems as strongly as they fight for tolerance of their own.
Without fighting for this principle, our free expression will be forever shackled by the fear imposed by the terror of fascists who veil themselves in Islam. Don’t allow that to happen.