Ayaan Hirsi Ali is the author of Infidel. She was forced into hiding in Holland after making a film on Islam and women called Submission with Theo van Gogh. Van Gogh was killed on the street in Amsterdam by an extremist Muslim activist. Hirsi Ali now lives in the United States. I interviewed her for my last Global Viewpoint Network column.
Nathan Gardels: One is tempted to say "here we go again," yet another episode of worldwide violence and protests against an insult to the Prophet Muhammad -- there was the Salman Rushdie fatwa, the Danish cartoon and your own case in Holland, where your partner in a film about Islam and women was assassinated in Amsterdam. Now some marginal YouTube video disrespecting the Muslim faith has swept the world, inflaming the pious and mobilizing the militant.
Is there anything different this time around, or are they all of a piece?
Ayaan Hirsi Ali: I would say they are all of a piece in the sense that they all stem from the same thing: a political ideology embedded in a 1,400-year-old religion and culture that makes no room for any criticism of its foundational father and sacred texts. When it comes to the Koran and the prophet, Muslims are equally offended by any work they perceive as disrespectful of those two icons: from the current Koran project in Germany, which is a serious academic work, to the notorious film on YouTube. For the average Muslim it is all an attack on the faith. Gardels: One difference between previous episodes and this one, as you alluded to, is that it comes in the wake of the Arab Spring. Now the masses are free to speak their minds and have elected their own leaders such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.
The Islamists are now the mainstream -- and they are as angry and insulted as what used to be seen in the West as the militant margins.
Hirsi Ali: What we are seeing in the wake of the protests in the Arab world is an aversion to tyrannical rule whether it is a secular dictator or a religious monarchy. Where the dictators fell we saw -- and I have always said this -- a strong vote for a system of government informed by political Islam. The mainstream Brotherhood never made a secret of their commitment to a political and moral framework based on Islamic law. So it should not surprise us in the least that the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood are insulted by unflattering depictions of their moral guide. Gardels: The Muslim-majority country closest to the West is Turkey, a democracy and also a member of NATO. Prime Minister Erdogan has said, "Insulting the prophet cannot be considered as freedom of expression." On this, there is no compromise.
Hirsi Ali: And here is what President Obama said when asked to qualify the initial statement made by the American Embassy in Cairo:
"I do have to say that, more broadly, we believe in the First Amendment. It is one of the hallmarks of our Constitution that I am sworn to uphold, so we're always going to uphold the rights of individuals to speak their minds. On the other hand, this film is not representative of who we are, and our values, and I think it is important for us to communicate that. That's never an excuse for violence against Americans, which is why my No. 1 priority and my initial statement focused on making sure that not only are Americans safe, but that we go after anyone that would attack Americans."
So Prime Minister Erdogan is not ready to compromise on the issue of free speech, and President Obama swore to uphold the American Constitution, of which the First Amendment is a hallmark. To me this symbolizes the "Clash of Civilizations" that professor Samuel Huntington described so eloquently in 1993, less than five years after the end of an epic confrontation of ideas with the former Soviet Union.
And this is the stark and unpleasant reality that faces both civilizations: There are certain values that cannot be compromised by those who hold them.
Prime Minister Erdogan has been tireless in leading initiatives on behalf of the Muslim nations of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (currently 57 in total) to create legislation through the channels of international law that bans blasphemy.
President Obama has been tireless in communicating to the Muslim world that America seeks friendship and peaceful cooperation with the Muslims all over the world. He has vowed to pull out American troops from Iraq and Afghanistan; he has not stood in the way of toppling even those dictators that were an ally of the U.S.; he has snubbed Israel and some of the Jewish population in the U.S. by trying to show that Palestinians are as much an ally of the U.S. as Israel.
In reality, neither leader nor the people who elected each of them is prepared to give the other what he wants: President Obama -- or any other American president regardless of party -- will not compromise the First Amendment; Prime Minister Erdogan or any other Muslim leader (at least in the short run) will not sit back and accept blasphemy against Muslim icons. Gardels: The democratization of the media in the West -- with social media like YouTube and Twitter -- means any marginal kook can post a video. Thanks to the Internet, today the reach of the media is planetary, including to the politically awakened Muslims no longer suppressed by autocrats. That is a combustible combination that likely means more conflict of this nature, not less.
Hirsi Ali: I agree. As I said, Western nations are based on the principle that the free exchange of ideas is constitutionally protected. In America Google, YouTube and the other Silicon Valley engineers and entrepreneurs are celebrated. There is nothing sacred in Hollywood and New York's giant publishing houses. If a movie is good, the makers get an Oscar or some other honor. If it is bad, the makers are mercilessly mocked in the reviews. If a book is good, the author is shortlisted for a Pulitzer. If it is bad, he is laughed out of town. No subject is out of bounds: Jesus Christ, the private lives of the Founding Fathers, sex, money, gays, Jews, women, you name it.
What Prime Minister Erdogan and President Morsi of Egypt don't understand is that in a constitutional democracy, the prime minister or the president does not have the power to limit free speech. They can say over and over again that "Innocence of Islam" is "distasteful" and that "it does not represent the work of the government or what mainstream Americans believe," but that is just their opinion. It is not a pledge to introduce legislation to punish the people behind the work. Gardels: What should the West do then?
Hirsi Ali: As the world's only remaining superpower, America is faced with the daunting task of preventing conflict as much as it can. Given its relative decline and the relative rise of powers that are hostile to the West, this task is even more daunting.
When it comes to relations with the Muslim world there is clearly a pious mainstream and a homicidal militant minority who share the view that some form of punishment is justified against those who insult their prophet or desecrate their holy book.
And here is the dilemma that America was grappling with since the storming of her embassy in Tehran in 1979: How can we marginalize the homicidal while not alienating the pious majority on the one hand, and on the other hand not betray our foundational traditions of free inquiry and human rights?
In relation to the Muslim world, the past three decades show three things:
First, that creating the impression that mutually exclusive moral systems can find compromise around non-negotiable values does not resolve the conflict but only makes it worse and postpones the real battle of ideas. The First Amendment in America will not be compromised, and the Muslim world will not accept that people who supposedly insult their icons will go unpunished. On this level, the only way out as I see it is a true battle of ideas whereby each side demonstrates to the other why its value system is superior. In other words, Westerners should quit the moral relativist posturing and get down to the hard work of defending their values.
Two, and this is a good sign, that the Muslim world is rapidly changing. The Iranian masses that brought the ayatollahs to power in 1979 were calling for change in 2009. As we all know, totalitarian systems have a short lifespan. The people in the Middle East are not quite clear on the ins and outs of freedom, but they are moving in the right direction. America and other Western countries could help hasten the process towards true freedom instead of creating the impression that some freedoms can be compromised. They can do so by empowering the individuals and groups who truly share America's founding principles as enshrined in the Bill of Rights. In other words, when it comes to the stark choice between the Koran and the Bill of Rights: those who choose the latter.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, that alliances with dictators, mujahedeen and other tyrants are more costly in human life and resources than facing up to the confrontation of irreconcilable values and setting out to win. The last victory of the U.S. against a bad system of ideas was against the Soviet Union. That was a long and uncertain cold war, but America won, and the same strategy must be applied in the battle against radical Islam.
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