THE BIG READ: The chasm of ideals - Times LIVE
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THE BIG READ: The chasm of ideals

David Blair | 2012-09-18 00:12:54.0
Afghan protesters in Kabul yesterday. Thousands took to the streets, setting fire to cars and shouting 'Death to America' as they denounced a film deriding the prophet Mohammed Picture: OMAR SOBHANI/REUTERS

At the height of the fury engulfing US embassies across the Middle East, with one ambassador lying dead and his consulate in Libya reduced to ashes, the leaders at the eye of the storm spoke by phone.

Anyone wanting to understand the collision between two world views, which poses one of the greatest contemporary threats to global harmony, would have done well to eavesdrop on this tense, late-night conversation between President Barack Obama and his Egyptian counterpart, Mohammed Morsi.

On the face of it, their discussion should have been relatively straightforward. Morsi leads a friendly country that receives $1.5-billion in US aid every year. He has repeatedly promised that Egypt will adhere to all international agreements and obligations. Obama simply wanted him to lower the temperature, calm public opinion and, above all, guarantee the safety of US diplomats in Cairo.

The two men managed to agree on little except their shared opposition to violence. Morsi offered his condolences over the Libya killings but White House officials report that he also seized his chance to protest direct to Obama about the amateur YouTube video, apparently made in California, that defames the prophet Mohammed.

In so doing, Morsi betrayed the yawning gulf between the two sides.

When Morsi, the first genuinely elected president of Egypt, told Obama how angry he was about the YouTube film, did he not realise that he was rebuking the wrong target? Obama had already made clear his revulsion over the video. No one has seriously suggested that the US government had anything to do with this absurd production. The p resident of the U S cannot be held responsible for the thoughts, opinions and actions of 300million Americans. Nor can he ban his citizens from expressing themselves, even if they sometimes do so in crass and offensive ways.

Morsi, of all people, should have understood this. Egypt's English-speaking leader spent a large part of his life in the US: he has a doctorate from the University of Southern California and once lectured at an American college. Two of his children were born in the US and are entitled to American passports.

But Egypt's government still chose to ask Obama - and every other Western leader - for something they could not possibly deliver.

Hisham Qandil, the country's prime minister, told the BBC that Western nations should revise their laws to "ensure that insulting 1.5billion people, their belief in their prophet, should not happen and, if it happens, then people should pay for it".

In other words, Egypt not only wants to ban its own citizens from expressing views that Muslims deem insulting, but its government thinks this prohibition should go global. The suggestion appears to be that an obligation to refrain from causing offence to Muslims should be extended to everyone in the world, including the citizens of countries in which freedom of expression has always included the "freedom to offend".

Sir Salman Rushdie, whose memoir of his time in hiding from Islamist killers is published this week, caused a storm b ack in September 1988 with his novel The Satanic Verses .

Rushdie often claims that the passages of his book that supposedly defamed the prophet were twisted, exaggerated and sometimes invented to drum up Muslim outrage. Whatever the truth, the dying Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, issued a fatwa , urging good Muslims to prove their faith by murdering the author.

Rushdie spent the next decade in hiding .

Iranian newspapers reported at the weekend that the 15Khordad Foundation has increased the reward for Rushdie's murder to $3.3-million from $2.8-million.

The appearance of his novel caused book-burnings in British streets.

Looking back, British Muslims see the Rushdie controversy as the moment when their community came together, discovered its collective identity, and began exerting political influence.

Meanwhile, the anti-Rushdie demonstrations spread across the Muslim world and US diplomatic premises were often targeted, though America had nothing whatever to do with the book. In February 1989, the US Information Centre in Pakistan's capital was attacked by an anti-Rushdie mob.

One possible conclusion is that nothing has changed since the appearance of The Satanic Verses: the visceral reaction to the YouTube video shows that Muslim nerves are as raw as ever and the opposition to genuine freedom of expression just as deeply felt.

Some of the British Muslims who burned The Satanic Verses have subsequently changed their mind. Inayat Bunglawala, a 19-year-old book-burner when the novel appeared, later wrote: "Our detractors had been right. The freedom to offend is a necessary freedom."

Today's protests might be taking place outside US embassies but many of them have little to do with America. All Muslim leaders quickly learn how to direct the anger of their people away from themselves and towards Washington.

In Sudan, for example, President Omar al-Bashir is so unpopular that massive protests against his regime have taken place. He risks becoming the next victim of the Arab Spring. So it's no surprise that Sudanese mobs have attacked the German, British and US missions. Bashir is allowing the crowds to vent their fury on these targets instead of on him.

Ordinary Muslims understand these manoeuvres very well. Last week, a friend in Tunisia told me that his country's rabble-rousers want "to show that they are a better Muslim than anyone else".

"My prophet would not worry about a video," he said. "My prophet would care about the state of our societies. He would want us to be developed, he would want us to be successful." - ©The Daily Telegraph


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