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Angry mobs kill four Americans in Libya

September 12, 2012 - Andrea Johnson
I can't pretend to understand what drove the angry mob that murdered U.S. Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens and three other Americans yesterday. There was also an attack on the U.S. embassy in Egypt.

The AP reports that hard-core radicals in Libya were outraged by reports of a low-budget independent film made by an American that mocks the Prophet Mohammed. Clips from the film were posted on YouTube but rumors in the Middle East suggested that the film is far bigger and will have wider distribution than it actually does. Security is being beefed up at other American embassies in anticipation of more attacks.

This isn't the first time that angry mobs in the Middle East have committed violence after a real or perceived insult to Islam or to the Prophet Mohammed. When I was in high school I remember being appalled by the death threat made against author Salman Rushdie for writing "The Satanic Verses." A few years ago there was violence in the wake of cartoons that were published that were seen as insulting to the Prophet Mohammed.

It is an attitude that is completely incomprehensible to Americans, which is probably part of the problem. When artists make some sort of insult against Christianity – a museum that displayed a photograph of a crucifix in a glass of urine, for instance – Americans and other westerners protest or call for a boycott or write letters to the editor. On occasion people try to destroy the art itself, but usually not the artist. Sometimes emotions run so high that threats are made against the artist or the museum that displays the work. Death threats were made against Andres Serrano, the artist who created that particular work in 1987. Outraged Christians still attempt to destroy prints of that photograph. In most cases, there is never actual violence and if there is it is prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. The law is firmly on the side of the person's right to freedom of expression.

In contrast, some of the Islamic countries have respect for Islam enshrined into law. Blasphemy against the Prophet is an offense that can land you in prison. It may be hard for people living in those countries to understand American-style freedom of speech and freedom of religion.

I can speculate that these violent protests have a lot more to do with the political and economic situation in these countries than they do with religious fervor, though there's probably a lot of that involved too.

In some of these countries, people have lived under authoritarian regimes or under constant threat of violence for decades. The United States may well be resented for the ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, which have resulted in civilian deaths. Perceived U.S. support for Israel continues to be a sore spot for many people in the Middle East, who sympathize with the Palestinian cause.

Understanding the root cause of some of the violence in no way suggests it's acceptable or that the U.S. necessarily needs to change its own positions. On the other hand, at a time when the United States is still at war and the lives of U.S. service members and diplomats and other personnel are at constant risk, I shake my head at deliberate provocation of Muslim sensibilities. People have a right to freedom of speech, but do they also have a responsibility to exercise that right wisely?

I can only hope for more stability in the Middle East, that the moderates in those countries will prevail and get control of their violent comrades, and that there are no more lives lost over these YouTube clips.


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