The outrage: Revisit free speech

 (Published in the San Francisco Chronicle, September 14, 2012)

It was a reprehensible crime. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other U.S. diplomatic staff members were nurturing excellent U.S.-Libyan relations until they were murdered by a Muslim mob in Benghazi. Many Libyans will fondly remember Stevens’ hard work to implement the U.S. policy to facilitate their liberation from Moammar Khadafy’s repressive dictatorship.

Unfortunately, these four innocent Americans have been the latest casualties of the West’s conscious or subconscious policy to foist its liberal ideology on unwilling Muslim societies. The amateurish movie “Innocence of Muslims,” produced in California by an Egyptian Copt and American evangelical Christians, portrays the Prophet Muhammad as a child molester and womanizer. It has triggered Muslim outrage in Libya, Egypt, Lebanon, Yemen, Sudan, Tunisia, Iran, Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, and probably elsewhere. But it conforms to the Western principles of freedom of speech and separation of church and state. So did the Muhammad cartoons published by a Danish newspaper, the anti-Quran movie produced by Holland’s Greet Wilder, Salman Rushdie’s novel “The Satanic Verses,” published in the United Kingdom, and other anti-Islamic works put out in the West.

All these incidents sparked indignation throughout the Muslim world. Yet Western statesmen and media generally defended the artists’ and authors’ right to produce these materials, citing the free-speech principle, even though some questioned the wisdom behind the projects.

Westerners are mostly comfortable with unbridled freedom of expression and the privatization of religion because these doctrines have evolved from the West’s unique historical experience. They stemmed from a reaction to the Catholic Church’s suppression of freedoms, the Inquisition and fierce power struggles with secular governments. Historical memories of those traumatic episodes have engendered antipathy for religion and religious values among many Westerners.

Muslim history has had no such conflicts between the laity and religious hierarchy.  In fact, the Sunni branch of Islam, to which nearly 90 percent of Muslims belong, has no religious hierarchy at all. And most Muslims — religious, agnostic or even non-believers — cherish their religious heritage. So do Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, Jains and many other non-Western religious communities. Western governments and most Western citizens don’t seem to recognize this diversity of value systems, so they insist on universal applicability of their liberal ideology and its doctrine of freedom of expression.

They have waived the free-speech principle, however, in cases of Holocaust denials, racial slurs, advocacy of terrorism and other expressions that could endanger Western social order or national security. But they have persistently refused to prevent the vilification of Islam.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has staunchly justified this stance in the case of the film “Innocence of Muslims,” citing America’s “long tradition of free expression.” She added that “we do not stop individual citizens from expressing their views no matter how distasteful they may be.”

This Western insensitivity to the Islamic faith and civilization has been a major source of the smoldering anti-Americanism in many Muslim countries. The key to defusing this ominous trend lies in overcoming the delusions about universality of the West’s liberal ideology.

Islam embraces some key Western political structures and values, such as nationalism and democracy, but it rejects others, such as the ban on religious ethical standards in political discourse, the denigration of Islam in the name of speech freedom.

Islamic values and the cultural patterns built around them engender Muslims’ missions and aspirations and lend meaning to their lives. As a step toward reconciliation with anti-American Muslim masses around the world, the West should adopt measures to stop the misuse of the free-speech doctrine to attack Islam.

Mustafa Malik is an international affairs commentator in Washington. He hosts the blog ‘Islam and the West’: http://islam-and-west.com.

 

 

 

Is Obama a Muslim?

 

A Republican activist I had met last month at a Middle East Policy Council seminar in Washington called over the weekend. She asked what I thought about President Obama’s speech at the Democratic  convention in Charlotte, N.C., before getting to the reason for her call.

Did I know if “Obama is really a Muslim”?  The middle-aged woman had learned that Muslims consider the Old and New Testaments part of their faith.  She was trying to find out if Obama could be adhering to his father’s religion, Islam; and mother’s, Christianity; at the same time

She left me wondering if some Republicans are trying to dig up some plausible rationale to paint Obama as a Muslim on Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign trail.  I will presently address the president’s religious affiliation. First, a word about what the persistence of the question of his religious identity says about race and religion in America.

A Pew Research Center survey, put out in July, found that only 49 percent of respondents believed that Obama is a Christian. One-third didn’t know his religious affiliation, and 17 percent believed he’s a Muslim. There’s concern among the president’s campaign team that the perception of his Muslim identity may cost him votes on November 6th.

Of course,  the Declaration of Independence  and the Bill of Rights confer social and political equality on all Americans, regardless of their race or religion. But many white American Christians still look askance at their colored and non-Christian compatriots’ claim to political and social equality.

Obama’s father was a black Kenyan Muslim, who gave his U.S.-born son his own skin color and his own Muslim name: Barack Hussein Obama. The president’s mother is  a white American-born Christian, who brought up young Obama as a Christian. Obama Jr. has since been practicing the Christian faith.

The awful history of American slavery and European Holocaust has delegitimized racism in the Western public domain.  Religion remains a widely approved value system in America.  The Christian right and Christian Zionism have a stranglehold on the Republican Party . Religious values and prejudices on abortion, homosexuality, Islamophobia, etc., continue to color American political discourse.

Islamophobia — the loathing and resentment of Islam and Muslims — has heightened in America  and Europe for several reasons.  One, resurgent Islam has posed a serious challenge to U.S.-NATO hegemony over many Muslim societies. Secondly, Muslims generally are resistant to assimilation with white Christians in the West, and Muslim lifestyles often contrast sharply with those of the white mainstream. Thirdly, the nearly simultaneous resurgence of Christian fundamentalism in America and Islamic revival in the Muslim world has also revived the old cultural and hegemonic antagonism between Muslim and Western civilizations, which  began with Muslim invasions of Christian countries in the Levant, North Africa and Iberia in the 7th and 8th centuries.

Finally, Al-Qaeda’s attack on the United States in 2001 has turned the simmering Islamophobia into anti-Muslim hysteria among many governments and white citizens throughout the West.  Large numbers of Muslims have been profiled, surveiled, demonized, detained, interrogated and held in “black sites.” Many Americans — conservatives as much as liberals — avoid Muslims in the public space.  Some openly say they wouldn’t want to travel with Muslims in the same plane.  Hence the president’s reelection campaign’s  concern that questions about his religious identity may alienate some voters.

So, is Obama a Muslim?  Some of those who think he is have researched the question. They cite, as mentioned, Muslims’ belief in the truth of the Bible and the Torah, and their veneration of Hebrew prophets and Jesus. They point to the Quranic injunction to allow Christians and Jews to practice their faiths freely in Islamic states. Yes, Obama doesn’t worship at mosques. But Islamic scripture says a Muslim remains a Muslim even if he or she doesn’t perform any of the Islamic rites. All he or she needs to do to be a Muslim is believe that there is a God, and that Muhammad was the last and final prophet.  If so, why can’t it be possible for the president to remain a Muslim while going to Christian churches?

What these folks also need to know is that the Qur’an says unequivocally that the Bible and the Torah, God’s true revelations as they are, have been overridden by the Qur’an; and that a Muslim ceases to be a Muslim when he joins another faith.  In other words, Obama can’t be a Muslim and a Christian at the same time.

  • Mustafa Malik, an international affairs columnist in Washington, hosts the blog ‘Islam and the West’: http://islam-and-west.com.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Americans fed up with right and left

The documentary “2016: Obama’s America” is drawing big crowds in the South, reports my hometown newspaper the Washington Examiner . And  “liberal and conservative voters” watching it are cursing President Obama.

“I have to get some more friends” to see the documentary, says 18-year-old Tammy Birdwell who watched it in Greenville, N.C. “We have to get Obama out.”

The production is based on Dinesh D’Souza’s controversial book The Roots of Obama’s Rage.  D’Souza is a right-wing, indian-born activist and writer who used to be an adviser to the Reagan White House. His book’s underlying theme is that Obama is inspired by the liberal “anti-colonial ideology of his African father.”  That ideology, adds D’Souza, has shaped the policies of the Obama administration. A right-wing documentary luring liberals? It reminds me of Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 11”, which was praised by many conservatives.  Many Americans are apparently disillusioned by both conservatism and liberalism.

D’Souza’s portrait of Obama is based mostly on the president’s writings and rhetoric.  The author selectively stitched together bits and pieces of them to draw up a profile of the first black American president that repels many  Americans.

As evidence of Obama’s liberalism and anti-colonialism, the author cites his call as a U.S. senator to withdraw American troops from Iraq, opposition to Gen. David Petraeus’ “surge” strategy in Iraq, association with “Marxist professors and structural feminists” at Occidental College, unidentified plan to “spread the wealth” in America, and so forth.

This image starkly contradicts Obama’s policies or actions as president.  President Obama is known the world over for  his embrace and expansion of the Bush administration’s drone war in several Muslim countries, killing hundreds of innocent men, women and children. He continues President Bush’s policies of profiling and surveillance of American Muslims, of denying Guantanamo Bay prisoners the due process of civil law, and of refusing to identify with African American issues and priorities. Early in his administration, Obama alienated many of his liberal and leftist supporters by caving in to Republicans to focus on deficit cuts over jobs and growth.

I knew the president was about to sidestep the causes of the poor and the left when he hired such died-in-the-wool conservative economists as Larry Summers, Tim Geithner and Peter Orszag to frame and run his economic policies.  But I did not anticipate his adoption of the Bush administration’s militarist agenda.  Washington Post writer Ezra Klein’s characterization of Obama as a “moderate Republican” may apply to many of his domestic policies. In the Middle East and South Asia, his first presidential term looks more like Bush’s third. So the question, again, is why is the right-wing documentary “2016”  riveting liberals? Why do Moore’s liberal documentaries attract many conservatives?

My take on it all is that while vested interests and ideologues remain loyal to ideologies, most everyday Americans are fed up with them. They know in their bones that their political ideologies and economic and financial institutions aren’t answering their real-life problems.  They have been voting Democrats and Republicans to Congress and the Presidency, but their economy remains in a shambles. Too many of them are unemployed or have jobs that don’t relieve them of hardships and despair. America lurches from one bloody and costly war to another, yet Americans have never felt so insecure: airports, government offices, corporations and many other swaths of public space have turned into veritable fortresses, under disturbing and annoying security cordons.

Americans’ allegiance to their political and economic institutions is eroding fast. Yet they continue to shuttle between them because they see no alternative paradigm, or avenues of meaningful living. Well, not yet. New ideological or existential paradigms often come unannounced. We should keep an ear out for them.

  • Mustafa Malik is an international affairs columnist in Washington. He hosts the blog Beyond Freedom.

 

 

 

 

 

U.S. liberals callous to Libyan uprising

By Mustafa Malik

 President Obama always makes good speeches, and he gave an excellent one defending his administration’s participation in NATO’s military intervention in Libya.

The coalition bombing has averted, as the president pointed out, a “brutal repression and looming humanitarian crisis” brought on by Muammar Qadhafi’s forces.  Even though   the Qadhafi forces have halted the rebels’ advance toward his eastern strongholds, the United States and its allies aren’t going to let the dictator prevail.

I’m concerned about the resistance to the mission that the administration is facing from America’s political and intellectual establishments. Republican and Tea Party opposition to the operation was predictable.  I’m disappointed, though not surprised, by the Democratic and, especially, liberal resistance to it.  It’s hard to imagine more liberal Americans than Leslie Gelb of the Council on Foreign Relations, Washington Post columnist Mark Shields and Rep. Denis Kucinich, Democrat of Ohio. They’re leading a range of American liberals and progressives who oppose the U.S. role in the U.N.-sponsored military action. I’m not surprised by their stance because I have known conservative and liberal Americans who profess support for “universal” human rights and freedoms, but view their “universe” to be the West. (The neocons’ “democratization” propaganda about the Iraq war meant to camouflage a clumsy imperial project.)

I was a member of an “International Congress” that was pushing for military intervention to stop the Serbian slaughter of Bosnian Muslims.  At our August 1995 conference in Bonn, Germany, my fellow U.S. delegates and I were elated to hear American liberals being hailed as “the bastion” of support for such a campaign. Coincidentally, the NATO bombing of  Serbian aggressors began while we were heading back home. I didn’t hear Kucinich, Gelb, Shields or any other well-known American liberals denouncing the Clinton administration for leading that operation.   Four years later when the United States led the NATO air raids to stop the Serbian army assaults on dissidents in Kosovo, American liberals applauded it.  Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo are part of the West.  Libya isn’t. Neither was Rwanda or Congo.

Kucinich and other liberals are criticizing Obama’s failure to obtain prior congressional approval of the Libya operation.  More revealing, however, has been their silence about the morality of the campaign. Shields and others have offered a moral argument, which is equally telling. The administration, they say, didn’t prove how defending the Libyan uprising would serve America’s “vital interests.”

Suppose tomorrow troops loyal to a neo-Nazi dictator begin mowing down protesters in the streets of Berlin or Vienna. Would we hear them denounce U.S. involvement in a NATO military assault to stop it? I believe that Americans, including Shields, would then find it in America’s “vital interest” to support such intervention, just as they did in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo.

I see defending the pro-democracy upheavals in Libya and other Arab countries serving an over-arching U.S. interest.  Most Muslims and Arabs in west Asia and North Africa have been deeply anguished by the United States’ long-standing support for their repressive autocracies. Their resentment is the biggest challenge to U.S. security and economic interests in the Arab world.  Embracing the “Arab spring” would help Washington douse the toxic anti-Americanism and court tomorrow’s rulers, generals and diplomats in that region.