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’:




U.S. policy, not Islam, breeding terrorists

By Mustafa Malik

(Published in the Austin-American Statesman, March 20; Columbus Dispatch, March 16, 2011)

 WASHINGTON – Rep. Peter T. King had said his congressional hearing on Muslim radicalization would investigate the causes of the problem. It didn’t.

I have long been calling, in my newspaper columns and at public forums, for a serious investigation of the causes of Muslim anti-Americanism and terrorism. Some researchers have made in-depth inquiries about it, but U.S. administrations, Congress and news media have brushed them aside.

Muslim radicalization in America and the West is a recent trend. It’s the outcome mainly of Western Muslim’ identification with their fellow Muslims overseas who are fighting U.S. and Israeli forces occupying their lands or deployed on them. As we know, 15 of the 19 terrorists who hijacked the aircraft on Sept. 11, 2001, were Saudis. They apparently had been pissed off by the deployment of American troops in Saudi Arabia. (more…)

Can Jordan monarchy survive?

By Mustafa Malik

(Published in the San Francisco Chronicle, February 20, 2011)

Admiral Mike Mullen recently visited Jordan. The chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff assured King Abdullah II of America’s commitment to the security of his kingdom. As Jordan has a peace treaty with Israel, it doesn’t really have an external security threat. A growing internal threat looms, however, to the Hashemite monarchy. The Arab revolutionary movement snowballing from Tunisia and Egypt has exacerbated that threat.

What’s likely to fuel a large-scale uprising against the Jordanian monarchy? And if that occurs, can the Pentagon help the king ride out of it?

As in other Arab states, Jordan is afflicted with a high unemployment rate (officially 13% but actually much higher), low living standards (per capita GNI $3,300) and widespread official corruption. But the biggest challenge to the throne comes from it not having local roots. The Hashemite family’s ethnic roots lie in the Muslim holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia. The British Empire planted the scion of that family, Abdullah bin al-Hussein, in 1923 as the king of what was called Transjordan. The state was carved out of the remains of the Ottoman Empire, which had been defeated and dismembered by the Allied Powers in World War I.

About 60 percent of Jordan’s population of 6.5 million is Palestinians. They’re mostly well-educated, urban and enjoy much higher income levels than the remaining 40 percent or so, made up largely of rural Bedouin tribes. The Palestinians and Bedouins have been estranged from each other since the inception of the state.

The Bedouin tribes have been the monarchy’s main support base, especially since 1970 when then King Hussein brutally suppressed a revolt by Palestinians. Thousands of Palestinians were slaughtered or expelled from Jordan. That was the beginning of the monarchy’s secret outreach to Israel, the nemesis of the Palestinians and other Arabs. In 1973, for example, Hussein, Abdullah’s deceased father, had a clandestine meeting with then Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir during which he warned her of Egyptian preparations for war against Israel. Egypt would later attack Israel in what would be known as the Yom Kippur war. Hussein also began working secretly with then Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres to conclude a peace agreement with Israel. The treaty was finally wrapped up and signed in 1994.

While the Palestinians resent the monarchy’s courtship of Israel, the Bedouins are being alienated by the current king, Abdullah, especially because of his efforts to placate the Palestinians. The outreach to the Palestinians is led by the king’s Palestinian wife, Rania. She is instrumental in providing Jordanian citizenship to a large number of Palestinian refugees, and helping Palestinians with jobs, business opportunities, and so forth.

On Feb. 7 the Bedouins staged a demonstration against the Abdullah government, a first in the history of the Hashemite-Bedouin relationship. They criticized Queen Rania’s meddling in government affairs and voiced other complaints against the regime. “The situation,” said their spokesman “has become unbearable. Corruption, nepotism and bureaucracy (sic) are widespread and the rich are becoming richer, while the poor – like many Bedouins – are becoming poorer.”

Meanwhile, the Egyptian and Tunisian uprisings have triggered several mainstream opposition rallies in Jordan. The protesters demanded democratic reforms, curbing nepotism and official corruption. The Jordanians haven’t called for an end to the monarchy yet, but they could do so if the public discontent escalates into a full-scale uprising.

So what could the Obama administration do to help the Jordanian royalty stave off an Egyptian-style revolution? Whatever else it can do, sending the head of the U.S. armed forces to Amman was a mistake. Many Jordanians saw it as America’s threat to use its military might to defend one of its Arab cops against the repressed people of the state. Moreover, a U.S. military intervention in Jordan’s political crisis would be counterproductive. Could American soldiers be shooting Arabs in one country without provoking Arab protests against the U.S. military presence and other vital interests in others?

Americans can’t really beat the brewing pan-Arab revolution in Jordan and most other countries. They should join the revolution now to preserve their vital interests in the Middle East.

Mustafa Malik, host of the blog Beyond Freedom,  is a columnist in Washington. He conducted field research on U.S.-Arab relations in Jordan, Iraq, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Yemen as a senior associate for the University of Chicago Middle East Center.