Stepping from the cloud of tear gas in front of the US embassy in Cairo, Khaled Ali repeated the urgent question that he said justified last week’s violent protests at US outposts around the Muslim world.
“We never insult any prophet — not Moses, not Jesus — so why can’t we demand that Mohammed be respected?” said Ali, a 39-year-old textile worker, holding up a handwritten sign in English that read: “Shut Up America.” “Obama is the president, so he should have to apologize!”
When the protests against a US-made online video mocking the Prophet Mohammed exploded in about 20 countries, the source of the rage was more than just religious sensitivity, political demagogy or resentment of Washington, protesters and their sympathizers said.
It was also a demand that many of them described with the word “freedom,” although in a context very different from the term’s use in the individualistic West: the right of a community, whether Muslim, Christian or Jewish, to be free from grave insult to its identity and values.
That demand, in turn, was swept up in the colliding crosscurrents of regional politics. From one side came the gale of anger at the US’ decade-old “war against terrorism,” which in the eyes of many Muslims in the region often looks like a war against them. And from the other, the new winds blowing through the region in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, which to many means most of all a right to demand respect for the popular will.
“We want these countries to understand that they need to take into consideration the people, and not just the governments,” said Ismail Mohammed, 42, a religious scholar who once was an imam in Germany.
“We don’t think that depictions of the prophets are freedom of expression. We think it is an offense against our rights,” he said. “The West has to understand the ideology of the people.”
Even during the protests, some stone throwers said that the clash was not Muslim against Christian. Instead, they suggested that the traditionalism of people of both faiths in the region conflicted with Western individualism and secularism.
Youssef Sidhom, the editor of the Coptic Christian newspaper Watani, said he objected only to the violence of the protests.
Sidhom approvingly recalled the uproar among Egyptian Christians that greeted the 2006 film The Da Vinci Code, which was seen as an affront to aspects of traditional Christianity and the persona of Jesus.
Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and other Arab countries banned both the film and the book on which it was based. And in Egypt, where insulting any of the three Abrahamic religions is a crime, the police even arrested the head of a local film company for importing 2,000 copies of the DVD, according to news reports.
“This reaction is expected,” Sidhom said of last week’s protests, “and if it had stayed peaceful, I would have said I supported it and understood.”
In a context where insults to religion are crimes and the state has tightly controlled almost all media, many in Egypt, like other Arab countries, sometimes find it hard to understand that the US government feels limited by its free speech rules from silencing even the most noxious religious bigot.
In his statement after protesters breached the walls of the US embassy on Tuesday last week, the spiritual leader of Egypt’s mainstream Islamist group, the Muslim Brotherhood, declared that “the West” had imposed laws against “those who deny or express dissident views on the Holocaust or question the number of Jews killed by Hitler, a topic which is purely historical, not a sacred doctrine.”