Questions remain as to what provoked the mob’s attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that resulted in the deaths of the U.S. ambassador, three other Americans and several Libyans.
Whatever the reason, spontaneous or planned, it must be said that the production and circulation of a video insulting Mohammed has enraged people throughout the Middle East, fueling riots and protests in Egypt, Yemen and elsewhere.
It is not the first time that a public affront against Mohammed, Islam or Islamic symbols has infuriated people in the Muslim world. Americans have not always been in the middle of the controversy.
In 1989, a well-known author, Salman Rushdie, a British subject, literally had to go into hiding to escape people bound and determined to kill him because of what he wrote about Islam in his novel “The Satanic Verses.” British authorities defended his right to free speech and protected him from attack. So, British installations and Britons, throughout the Middle East, became targets.
In 2004, a Dutch film producer was murdered in Amsterdam, expressly in retaliation for a movie that he had created in which Islam was, or seemingly was, demeaned.
In 2005, a Danish newspaper published 12 cartoons that depicted Mohammed very insultingly. The cartoons reached eyes beyond Denmark, and then began a series of riots, some deadly. No Dane could move comfortably in any Muslim country. Danish embassies and businesses were beset.
Several incidents allegedly by American troops in Afghanistan and Iraq have hurt this country by turning Muslims against us.
Britain, The Netherlands and Denmark all are robust democracies where freedom of expression prevails. In the conflicts affecting them, authorities of these three governments protested that people within their societies can express themselves as they wish.
Americans can say the same thing regarding the troops or this most recent video offensive to Muslims, but these protestations made no impression on the Muslims so stung by what they perceived to humiliate their religion.
Catholics cannot wag their heads too vigorously. Remember? Twenty years ago, an entertainer appeared on NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” and tore in two a photograph of Pope John Paul II. I watched it. I was incensed, as were many other Catholics. Protests across the country demanded that the entertainer apologize, that NBC apologize, and some called upon businesses to cancel advertising on NBC.
This entertainer broke no American law. We have the Bill of Rights in this country, with its guarantee of the right to free speech. No blood was spilled, as it was in Benghazi, or in riots associated with the British, Dutch and Danish incidents, thank God, but we Catholics were mighty mad. Free speech? So what?
Two factors come very much into play. The first is respect for religion. So many Catholics are cafeteria Catholics in ways that they do not suspect. All the recent popes, including Benedict XVI, clearly and deliberately have shown respect for Islam and regard for Muslims. Not every Catholic takes the cue.
Then there is the world beyond Catholics. Belittling any religion is bad for all religion.
Secondly, prudence has to come into the picture. The turmoil and hatred across the Middle East are so strong, and potentially so dangerous, and the United States is in the center of it, with American lives at risk.
We are called to respect the religion of others. We know the reaction in the Muslim culture to perceived insults. Where is tolerance and common sense?
Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s associate publisher.