As American stature and our embassies are attacked across the world, the U.S. needs to develop a clear vision of who we are and what we stand for in the free world. Anti-Islam films and cartoons are but cheap distractions. The challenge before the world could not be clearer — into the abyss left by ruthless dictators is a widening front in the battle for the soul of Islam:
Will Muslim majority societies heed the call of the Arab spring for the rights of the individual? Will they defend the rights of the minority over the collective, over the tribe, over the clerical oligarchs? Or will they just trade one autocracy for another? And will the U.S. stand on the principles we were founded on?
New ideas to the region like individual liberty and the separation of mosque and state are not turned on like a light switch. They are nurtured in a soil that has been tilled for critical thinking. Middle Eastern soil today is far from that. What we see today is more of the past battles between the evils of secular Arab fascism and theocratic fascism. In the information war between them, the liberals and secular democrats have been absent. Meanwhile, the fascists lie in wait for openings like the film and cartoons that exploit the imagined threat of American imperialism in order to legitimize their own ascendancy.
Islamists use these invented crises of faith to motivate spiritual fervor for the “Islamic state” and its legal instruments of shariah like blasphemy laws. While the Obama administration fecklessly condemns the violence and dissociates itself from “the video” grievance — rather than standing firm in defense of free speech and religious liberty — the Islamist agenda advances in full gear.
Consider the proclamations emanating from Al Azhar University, the world’s leading Islamist institution in Cairo. The Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar, Ahmed al-Tayyeb, condemned the West summarily telling Egyptians in reference to the film that “the West throughout history has not treated Islam with respect, but showed hostility [against it], and chosen the path of conflict, rather than understanding.
The Islamist narrative is that the defense of liberty is a license to denigrate Muslims and Islam. The U.S. has so far offered a paltry defense leaving reformers, secularists and our real allies ill-equipped and helpless.
Our motherlands face a number of hurdles before they even begin to enter modernity. But to patronize their societies with a different set of human standards than those embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a moral relativism that insults every Muslim.
Tough love is the highest form of respect. Demanding the minimum standard of non-violence is not enough. Moral relativism is exactly what the newly elected theocrats of the Muslim Brotherhood and their mentors at Al-Azhar want in order to widen rather than breach the divide between liberty and Islam.
We still have no strategy to engage real allies of liberty: the silent majority of liberals on the ground in the Middle East. We must signal to them that when it comes to democracy, there is no compromise on the defense of freedom of speech and that defense is inextricably wedded to the first freedom — freedom of religion.
For Muslims, we know well in the stories of the Prophet Muhammad that he sustained considerably more criticism than this movie, cartoons or any attacks of speech bring to bear. He either responded in silence or compassion.
As the old guards rush to fill the power vacuum, the voices of the “Arab Spring” standing up to the tyrants need to know the free world is on their side. The defense of free speech and religious liberty is not a war against faith, but a war against the oligarchs, the despots and the theocrats that would usurp their freedom. Any assumption otherwise is a bigotry our nation fought against not for.
M. Zuhdi Jasser is the author of “A Battle for the Soul of Islam: An American Muslim Patriot’s Fight to Save His Faith” and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.