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September 16, 2012, Sunday

Resentment, gratitude, tolerance

I recall it was Peter Watson, British author of an excellent book on human thought and invention, “Ideas: A History of Thought and Invention, From Fire to Freud,” who put his finger on the right spot.

In response to a question, he mentioned the ever-glowing fanatical streak (as undesired part) of all monotheistic religions that “is responsible for most of the wars and bigotry in human history.”

The utterly offensive film, “The Innocence of Muslims” -- no matter how primitive, stupid or disgusting -- was enough to cause yet another chain reaction; in fact, a wave of madness all over the world, proving the point that it is so easy to trigger reflexes, yet so difficult to build bridges between the three main religions, despite what we call progress, so much fight for human dignity, freedom and mutual respect. A great shame indeed.

Yet, each time the madness erupts, an inability to understand all aspects of the global divide also becomes visible. As a lot of Muslim leaders half-heartedly condemn the despicable violence to diplomats and others, many American media figures were again quick to simplify. It was yet another enigma for them that the US, as the self-sacrificing liberator, was shown resentment, instead of gratitude.

Mona Eltahawy, in a powerful article in the Guardian, seeks some answers:

“Anti-US sentiment has been born out of many grievances -- support and weapons for such dictators as Mubarak, unquestionable support for Israel in its occupation of Palestine, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and drone attacks in Pakistan and Yemen that kill more civilians than intended targets. And, paradoxically -- or perhaps fittingly -- that anti-US sentiment was played on dictators such as Mubarak, who was happy to pocket US aid in return for maintaining Egypt's peace treaty with Israel and buying US weapons, and yet used the state-controlled media to fan hatred of the US.”

This sort easily fits in Turkey's reality, too, helping us to understand why the sympathy for the US here remains so low. The past's burden is heavier than it looks.

But there is more in Eltahawy's reasoning that demands deep reflection.

“That YouTube film -- not made or distributed by the US government -- was posted at least two months before ultra-conservative Salafists called for protests at the US embassy. Why?” she asks, and goes on:

“Understanding that the president, Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, must now occupy that same middle ground as Mubarak did, the Salafists are all too happy to flex right-wing political muscle. Why else did they call their protest in Cairo on the anniversary of the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001? Morsi, not wanting to concede the moral high ground, remained silent for too long, stuck between his memory of being the opposition and the awareness that he's now the president. That's what I mean when I tell fellow Egyptians that it's about us, not America.”

But, there is also a part that is about America. I am sure the mad violence that spread beyond Egypt, also scaring many decent, moderate Muslims as much as the YouTube film did, will reopen a debate about hate speech. An excellent new book, written by Jeremy Waldron, “The Harm in Hate Speech” (Harvard University Press) is filled with arguments to reconsider the approaches in the US against incitement of hatred.

Waldron underlines that the US is almost alone in not punishing hate speech -- against a person or group on the basis of their race, religion, sex, ethnicity or sexual orientation (well, he has obviously not studied that his country is joined by Turkey in that matter). Canada, Sweden, Britain, Denmark, Germany, Australia, etc. have such laws. As we have seen in the YouTube film, even openly detestable language is allowed, its right protected.

Waldron's book, although new, preceded the recent global events, but it can also be used as an argument to revisit hate speech in a broader context: that even an isolated individual, abusing in an evil manner the freedom to spread hatred in a dark corner, can cause immense harm beyond borders in these times. This, as he writes, shows “the flare-up of a few particular incidents can have a disproportionate ­effect.”

Certainly, the desire to keep the First Amendment will have to weigh harder, but in the Internet age, Americans, justifiably keen on fearing and fighting censorship, must pay attention to how other full-scale democracies deal with it.

Monotheistic religions have their sensitivities: Germany's stupid path to ban circumcision united Jews and Muslims, and the respect for Prophet Muhammad should not be allowed to be challenged by the ill-willing enemies of humanity. Those who cause harm must be punished, and this is far too different from banning their thoughts. They should be aware of the legal consequences. Let us also not forget that religions also evolve: They teach to be more and more tolerant. Well, we can only hope.

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