Early in his Presidency, Barack Obama used a keynote speech in Cairo to reach out to the Muslim world, and to launch his campaign to rehabilitate the USA in Islamic opinion. Now, after the sacking of the American Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, and the murder of US Diplomats in an extraordinary outburst of anti-Western rioting, that policy lies in tatters, only a few weeks before the US Presidential Election.
The wave of attacks across a dozen Islamic countries has been on an extraordinary and pathological scale.
The trigger for the attacks was (according to newspaper reports) a ten-minute video clip purporting to be from a movie. It was judged to be insulting to Islam. It was reprehensible. But it appears to have been the work of a lone eccentric who has done time in jail for fraud. It was not produced by the US government, nor by any established movie studio. The suggestion that it had any official status or approval is palpably absurd. Mob attacks on embassies — US, UK and German embassies, who given the opportunity would certainly have condemned the video — were wholly unjustified.
Sadly there seems to be a pattern of fanaticism and intolerance by Islamist extremists. It may be girls’ schools bombed by the Taliban, or women beaten with clubs by the Iranian “morality police” for showing a wisp of hair under a headscarf. In this case, it was Islamist mobs committing mayhem and murder.
Muslims quite properly expect due respect for their values and their faith. But some of them seem to be ignoring the need for reciprocity in a multi-faith world. They are not prepared to show respect for the Western value of free speech. And free speech is not just the right to say what many people agree with. It includes the right to say things that contradict and offend others. When some maverick abuses that right to create something as grossly offensive as the video clip in this case, the appropriate response is dignified contempt, not the murder of innocent people who were not implicated in the offence.
We in Britain have no effective blasphemy law protecting our Established Church. We can hardly be expected to create such a law to protect other faiths — especially when any such law could be challenged on the grounds of human rights and free speech.
Apologists for Islam are keen to point out that the headlines we see for Benghazi and other attacks represent the actions of a minority of extremists, not a mainstream Islamic position. This is credible — just as no one imagines that all Roman Catholics support Irish Republican terrorists. Certainly the Muslim whom I know best, Tory MEP Syed Kamall, is a remarkably humane and civilised individual, and is an excellent testimony to his faith. Nonetheless the persistent media coverage of outrages by extremists feeds the impression of a faith driven by fanaticism and intolerance.
So what have the extremists achieved? They have ensured vast media coverage for an essentially trivial and grubby video clip, which but for their efforts might have passed unnoticed. And they have damaged the reputation and perception of their faith amongst reasonable people around the world. Not a good outcome.