Global Currents article

A Case of Imperial Aggression, Not Contending Modernities

There may be examples of a “clash between modernities,” but the recent wave of protests in several Muslim majority countries against the so-called “innocence of Muslims” film was not one of them. Indeed, protests by Muslims should be expected and accepted as part of the process of “negotiating” the appropriate limits of two varieties of free speech. If the movie maker in this case is exercising his right to free speech, so are Muslims who are protesting the excessively crude and vulgar ways in which he expressed his views.

Free Speech Includes the Right to Protest — but Never Violently

It is equally clear to me that while protest is a legitimate part of the process of defining free speech, violence is never justified. On those two sides of the equation I see no doubt or qualification. The question I wish to raise here is where is the violence happening, and what other factors may be contributing to it in those particular places.

There are about 1.8 billion Muslims around the world, who constitute the majority of the population in more than forty countries today. Out of a fifth of humanity and a quarter of the membership of the United Nations, violence in some protests (not violent protests) is happening among a few thousand protestors in five or six countries out of forty. This is hardly a case of Muslims as a whole doing this or that. When we consider each of those countries, we find that they are either lawless places in the grip of civil war, such as Libya and Syria, or controlled by violent despotic regimes that have terrorized their own populations for decade, such as Sudan, or countries where local populations hold strong grievances against the aggressively violent foreign policy of the United States, such Pakistan and Yemen.

To be very specific, the invasion and occupation of Iraq by the United States and its allies was a horrendous crime against humanity that is still unaccounted for. When a crime of this magnitude happens, it cannot be undone by simply withdrawing the troops and privately acknowledging that it was “a mistake.” If the powerful are getting away with murder — literally in this case — the apparently powerless victims of aggression will try to retaliate in any way they can.

Not a Clash of Modernities

In my view, the current film episode is is not a case of clash of modernities because countries like Canada, the United Kingdom and France, which presumably share with the United State the same conception of modernity, do not agree with its extreme view of free speech.

I also find that the impulse of American opinion leaders to immediately blame Islam and Muslims is a case of irrational and offensive over-generalization. This is more unjustified in view of the fact that there is no corresponding willingness to consider the responsibility of the United States for a war of aggression in Iraq, and countless unaccountable assassinations and drone attacks on civilian populations on the pretext of a global war on terror.

The Innocence of Americans?

It is also remarkable to me that we hear loud condemnations of Muslims for failing to respect “our values” without ever asking ourselves whether we respect their values. I find that such unbalanced and unfair protestation of “the innocence of Americans” is a case of imperial aggression not only for the recent and current situations note above, but also because it reflects the imperial impulse to dehumanize and degrade the subjects of empire in order to justify continued aggression and domination. It is as if to say to the Muslims of the world: “You must either submit to our values without protest or you are uncivilized and aggressive lot that deserves to be punished.”

Let me conclude by stating my own position as clearly as I can. I support the right to peacefully protest the abuse of free speech, and categorically condemn violence, whoever the perpetrator or whatever the alleged “cause.”

What Should We Do Now?

I also wish to close by responding to the legitimate and urgent question: What should we do now? 

First, we must all truly and consistently uphold the rule of law and democratic accountability in our foreign and domestic practice. We cannot expect others to abide by the law when we repeatedly violate its most basic precepts with apparent impunity.

Second, we must abide by the rule of law all the time and in every situation, instead of doing so only when it serves our purposes and disregarding it whenever we find the law “inconvenient.”

Third, we must maintain a sense of perspective and fairness in our analysis and prescriptions for specific episodes like the current film fiasco. When we over-generalize and demonize “the other,” we evade our own responsibility and undermine the credibility of moderate voices in their own communities.

Attacking Embassies and Ambassadors Is Always a Crime against Sharia

Fourth, regarding the current situation in particular, attacking embassies and harming foreign emissaries or ambassadors have always been condemned as unlawful and punishable crimes by Sharia from the very beginning of Islam. For detailed documentation of this principle see, for example, Muhammad Hamidullah, Muslim Conduct of State, 1941. When we see Muslims violating a fundamental norm of Sharia, we should not ascribe their conduct to Islam or to their being Muslims. Their conduct, rather, is utterly contrary to Islam.

Finally, we must be willing to reconsider our own position — in this case, our extreme view of free speech. We must also show respect for the positions of people of different religious and cultural traditions before we rush to condemn them for failing to “honor our values.”

Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na'im
Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na'im is the Charles Howard Candler Professor of Law at Emory Law, Associate Professor in the Emory College of Arts and Sciences, and Senior Fellow of the Center for the Study of Law and Religion of Emory University. His areas of expertise include Human Rights, Islamic Law, Comparative Law, Comparative Constitutional Law, International Law, International Human Rights Law, Law and Religion and his research focuses on  constitutionalism in Islamic and African countries, secularism, and Islam and politics.

4 thoughts on “A Case of Imperial Aggression, Not Contending Modernities

  1. Always great to read Abdullahi’s commentary on global events. This is also the position the Obama adminstration tried to evoke- somewhat timidly- and I fear that in the ‘international relations’ focused Presidential Debate coming up- the President will essentially pander to his critics on this one, if the issue comes up…..

  2. Abduh! I saw you were coming to Kroc but sadly was not going to be around on that day! I am appointed here at the moment to teach the Masters and doctoral students conflict resolution and engagement. LOVE the students and the whole concept of the Institute (which makes a nice change to law school!). Thank you for your contribution to the Contending Modernities project which is another exciting aspect of the Kroc Institute’s work and a natural fit for my recent work on shari’a. I am continuing to speak about this in many places and hope we run across one another soon. As ever your points are well taken – and of course the assumption that free speech however hateful must have no limits in the US is something that is difficult to understand from a European (and Canadian) perspective.

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