Anti-Muslim material — the short film Fitna and the Danish cartoons spring to mind — usually raise hell when they first appear.
They also raise some interesting questions.
The propagandists have certainly enjoyed their handiwork. Vilifying the enemy flavor of the month always wins vigorous rounds of applause (and money) from the right quarters. The violent response of a tiny minority of foolish Muslims is amplified in the media lens and appears to validate the message itself. The propaganda is touted as part of an honorable tradition of free expression, consigning criticism about inaccuracies and outright lies to irrelevance.
These three points have been distilled into the following formulation: unlike everyone else, Muslims can’t handle criticism because Muslims are intolerant, if not violent.
This is a point worth taking up. It assumes the Muslim and the (non-Muslim) Westerner are equals, operating on the same plane, perhaps enjoying a cup of coffee together. But upon hearing some slight dig, the Muslim suddenly goes berserk and tosses scalding liquid in his poor companion’s lap while yelling “Allahu-Akbar.”
This sort of scenario neatly excises the most important part of present-day reality: reality itself.
For what makes the propaganda problematic is not the content, but the context: invasion, occupation, torture, extraordinary rendition, and a long train of other abuses have left several hundred thousand Muslims dead and several million others displaced or ghettoized in seven short years.
This is where the noble free speech narrative tends to falls apart. The ability to say what one wants has never been the problem for most Muslims: let a thousands lies bloom. But when lies and smears are being hurled alongside cruise missiles and cluster bombs, words take on a decidedly different meaning.
The Westerner and the Muslim are not “on the same plane” — in either sense of the word. One is flying a B-52. The other is being bombed from 52,000 feet in the air.
The vilification campaign accumulates and intensifies and drills its way into the skulls of its Western recipients. It becomes an enabler, an approval, an exhortation, an instigation to further violence against the vilified.
Anti-Islamic incantations thus paint Muslims as violent in order to justify the listeners’ violence. If Muslims are Nazis, or barbarians, or women-haters, or baby-eaters, or all the above, killing them is not only not a bad idea but a pretty damn good one and here’s a medal for your troubles.
Propaganda in wartime is like a verbal targeting reticule, enabling what Orwell aptly described as “the habit of assuming that human beings can be classified like insects and that whole blocks of millions or tens of millions of people can be confidently labelled ‘good’ or ‘bad.'”
Examples help here. Hutus describing Tutsis as “cockroaches” on the airwaves were exercising their right to free speech — before also exercising their right to hack off limbs. Germans excoriating Jews as “vermin” were exercising their right to free speech — before also exercising their right to light the furnaces.
Would honest women and men defend the “right” to free speech in the context of these assaults? Is this kind of free speech free? Is it even speech? Or, like water subject to the correct degree of heat, is it able to change its character altogether, eluding facile labels like vapor passing through clenched fists?
Reasonable people recognize that free speech has limits. Among them are American jurists who have said that the First Amendment does not permit incitement to violence or the right to cause panic. As Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes observed, you can’t yell “fire” in a crowded theater.
Well, unless it’s packed with Muslims.
M. Junaid Levesque-Alam blogs about America and Islam at Crossing the Crescent (www.crossingthecrescent.com) and writes about American Muslim identity for WireTap magazine. Co-founder of Left Hook, a youth journal that ran from Nov. 2003 to March 2006, he works as a communications coordinator for an anti-domestic violence agency in the NYC area. He can be reached at: