Thu, Sep 20, 2012 - Page 9 News List

Culture clash underlies riots at embassies

Many Muslims cannot understand how insulting a religion can be protected as free speech in the US

By David Kirkpatrick  /  NY Times News Service, CAIRO

In fact, denying the Holocaust is also protected as free speech in the US, although it is prohibited in Germany and a few other European countries. However, the belief that it is illegal in the US is widespread in Egypt, and the Brotherhood’s spiritual leader, Mohammed Badie, called for the “criminalizing of assaults on the sanctities of all heavenly religions.”

“Otherwise, such acts will continue to cause devout Muslims across the world to suspect and even loathe the West, especially the USA, for allowing their citizens to violate the sanctity of what they hold dear and holy,” he said. “Certainly, such attacks against sanctities do not fall under the freedom of opinion or thought.”

Several protesters said during the heat of last week’s battles here that they were astonished that the US had not punished the filmmakers.

“Everyone across all these countries has the same anger, they are rising up for the same reason and with the same demands, and still no action is taken against the people who made that film,” said Zakaria Magdy, 23, a printer.

In the West, many may express astonishment that the murder of Muslims in hate crimes does not provoke the same level of global outrage as the video did, but even a day after the clashes in Cairo had subsided, many Egyptians argued that a slur against their faith was a greater offense than any attack on a living person.

“When you hurt someone, you are just hurting one person,” said Ahmed Shobaky, 42, a jeweler. “But when you insult a faith like that, you are insulting a whole nation that feels the pain.”

Mohammed, the religious scholar, justified it this way: “Our prophet is more dear to us than our family and our nation.”

Others said that the outpouring of outrage against the video had built up over a long period of perceived denigrations of Muslims and their faith by the US or its military, which are detailed extensively in the Arab news media: the invasion of Iraq on a discredited pretext; the images of abuse from the Abu Ghraib prison; the burning or desecrations of the Koran by troops in Afghanistan and a pastor in Florida; detentions without trial at Guantanamo Bay; the denials of visas to prominent Muslim intellectuals; the deaths of Muslim civilians as collateral damage in drone strikes; even political campaigns against the specter of Islamic law inside the US.

“This is not the first time that Muslim beliefs are being insulted or Muslims humiliated,” said Emad Shahin, a political scientist at the American University in Cairo.

While he said that no one should ever condone violence against diplomats or embassies because of even the most offensive film, Shahin said it was easy to see why the protesters focused on the US government’s outposts.

“There is a war going on here,” he said. “This was a straw, if you will, that broke the camel’s back. The message here is we don’t care about your beliefs — that because of our freedom of expression, we can demean them and degrade them any time, and we do not care about your feelings.”

There are also purely local dynamics that can fan the flames. In Tunis, a US school was set on fire by protesters angry over the video — but then looted of computers and musical instruments by people in the neighborhood.

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