Note: this started out as “Morning Linkage” but quickly became an extended comment. I apologize for the poor proofing.
Four Americans, including US ambassador Christopher Stevens, were killed in the extremist Islamist attack on the American consulate in Libya, Hayes Brown has a good, quick, overview of the circumstances surrounding the attacks in Libya and Egypt. As he concludes:
Finally, the relationship between the United States and the Egyptian and Libyan governments will likely hinge on the response of their leadership. The Libyan government, including President Mohammed el-Megarif, has swiftly condemned the attack. Prime Minister Abdurrahim El-Kieb has said that Libya is “determined to take action against those who murdered Amb. Stevens & other innocent people.” President Morsy of Egypt has yet to issue a statement on the assault on the U.S. Embassy.
James Joyner weighs in at The National Interest, where he criticizes the (since repudiated and, it seems, removed) statement by the US embassy in Cairo:
While the instincts to emphasize America’s tradition of religious inclusiveness and to try to head off violent reactions are laudatory, the statement is offensive on its own terms and simply outrageous in light of the assaults on American sovereign soil and the death of American diplomats that followed.
In point of fact, making a movie commenting on the sexual proclivities of someone who died some fourteen hundred years ago in no way constitutes “incitement” under any meaningful use of the term.
More importantly, the United States government has no business whatsoever condemning the exercise of free speech, the most fundamental of civil liberties, by a member of the citizenry that employs and finances it. While the First Amendment right to free speech is subject to certain time, place and manner restrictions, the fact that it might “hurt the religious feelings of Muslims” is decidedly not among them.
James is wading into difficult terrain. I suspect the the inflection point for debate in the US commentariat will be between those who view recent events through the prism of “right-wing Christian extremists attempt to incite violence” and “right-wing Islamist extremists kill Americans over exercise of free speech.” So, after praising the Obama administration for its earlier handling of Terry Jones’ religious hatred, he puts it this way:
To be sure, Terry Jones’s bigotry is hardest type of speech to defend. It has no obvious redeeming value and is specifically intended to be offensive. But we’re a country that recognizes the right of citizens to burn our flag in protest, understanding that the very fact that doing so outrages so many Americans demonstrates how powerful a form of speech it is.
The fact that the words of some backwoods Florida preacher with a tiny congregation can spark murder and mayhem in Afghanistan, Egypt and Libya is a powerful indictment of the immaturity of those civil societies. Islam has endured for more than a millennium, and its followers constitute more than a fifth of humanity; surely, it can withstand the insults of a half-wit.
Blake Hounshell preemptively condemns the politicization of these events:
This is, obviously, a terrible tragedy and a shocking turn of events on a day when Americans mourned those killed 11 years ago on Sept. 11, 2001. Stevens was by all accounts a popular diplomat, having established the U.S. presence in Benghazi during the war and been an avid supporter of the opposition. Here’s a video introducing him to Libyans.
What makes the deaths all the more tragic is that they will inevitably become politicized. On Tuesday, conservative websites were highly critical of a statement by the U.S. Embassy in Cairo that came ahead of a protest where demonstrators breached the embassy’s walls in a moment reminiscent of 1979 in Iran. Liz Cheney and the Republican-controlled House Foreign Affairs Committee joined in, accusing the administration of issuing an “apology” for a bizarre and mysterious film attacking the Prophet Mohammed that served as a pretext for the protests. And the Romney campaign issued its own statement. Wednesday will likely bring more finger-pointing
I have only a few things to add.
First, we should not efface the agency of anyone involved. For Terry Jones and his ilk, provoking violence is a feature, not a bug, of attacking Islam. They believe that Western Civilization in general, and the United States in particular, is already at war with Islam. This war takes many forms, but all involve unanswered or inadequately answered Islamic aggression: from terrorist attacks to “stealth Sharia” to the subversion of the US government by pro-Islamists and ‘useful idiots’ alike. Forcing a confrontation is the best way to advance the cause of ‘waking up’ Americans to this war and thereby bringing about more aggressive US policy.
None of this, however, makes those who storm US consulates and murder any less culpable for their actions. They are not irrational man-children. They engage in their own “forcing mechanisms” designed to further their own causes — that of anti-Americanism, opposition to their own governments, and of transnational Islamism. And yes, their “forcing mechanism” involves killing people, which is far more morally repugnant than engaging in offensive speech, drawing offensive cartoons, and making films. Indeed, the storming of the US consulates and the murder of Americans has more in common, as (im)moral actions, with those of Michael Page than with Terry Jones.
We should be sophisticated enough, I submit, to recognize that anti-Islamic extremists and militant jihadists want some of the same things: they want to polarize politics along religious lines. This is a dangerous and reprehensible goal. At the same time, the particular means at stake in this specific action-reaction chain are morally distinguishable. In short, both frames contain truth and neither should be allowed to triumph over the other.
Second, Blake and others are right to note the ongoing dangers reflected in these events. This cannot be emphasized enough: there are individuals and movements, both in the United States and the Middle East, who aim to collapse multiple sites of difference, conflict, and cooperation into a single pivot point: the ‘American-led West’ against ‘Islam.’ What we’re seeing now in the fallout of the attacks is what has been going on for a long time: numerous officials, regimes, movements, and individuals struggling to advance or avoid this kind of polarization.
The politics of this struggle are hazardous for everyone involved. We have seen, and will continue to see, US allies and partners say and do things we find offensive or, at the least, play poorly in American domestic politics. Some of these statements and actions will involve political calculation or miscalculation. Others will reflect underlying divergence from American values and goals. But they need to be judged through the prism of the politics of political survival — as carried out by officials trying to balance competing demands and constituencies. Thus, one hopes that not only the Obama Administration, but responsible US politicians, heed Blake’s sage advice:
The Obama administration must tread delicately during this heated political season. This crude film — which “portrays the Prophet Muhammad as a womanizer, pedophile and fraud,” as the Wall Street Journal put it — may have been obscure before, but it’s not anymore. Afghan President Karzai has already issued a statement condemning the movie — but not the embassy attacks. Radical Islamist groups and countries like Iran will be looking to exploit the situation, whether in Afghanistan or elsewhere. I suspect this won’t be the last time somebody tries to breach the walls of a U.S. facility abroad this year. And there will inevitably be questions about the intelligence warnings and the lack of security in Benghazi and Cairo, to say nothing of the broader concerns raised about America’s relationship with these new “democracies.” But the White House needs to be smart and above all careful — it can’t let its response be dictated by the exigencies of the election back home.