In November 2004, a 26-year old Dutch-Moroccan named Mohammed Bouyeri ambushed filmmaker Theo Van Goh as he rode his bike to work. Bouyeri shot the filmmaker eight times with a handgun, and, as he lay dying, attempted to decapitate him with a large knife. Death was the treatment Van Goh earned for directing a movie that criticized Islam’s treatment of women. In both 2005 and 2007, European newspapers that ran cartoons featuring likenesses of Mohammed were met with riots and death threats. In April 2010, Comedy Central censored images of Mohammed, bleeped out his name, and—ironically—cut a final speech about standing up to intimidation and fear from an episode of South Park, in part because of death threats against the show’s writers.
The other week, a poorly-made YouTube trailer for a movie called “The Innocence of Muslims” that distastefully portrays the prophet as a bloodthirsty pedophile hit the internet. Again, the mobs have spoken. Again, there are bodies in the street as the civilizing principles of decency and diplomatic immunity are gleefully discarded. In Libya, the United States ambassador was killed along with three American soldiers. In Egypt, Yemen, and Tunisia, crowds attacked the American embassy. In Sudan, apparently lacking either an American target or a map, a giant mob stormed the German embassy. Nineteen died in riots in Pakistan where rioters stoned a KFC and torched a church. Two American soldiers were killed in Afghanistan. Even here in Australia, a mob formed in downtown Sydney, attacking police officers with thrown rocks and clenched fists, smashing windows, and chanting “Obama, Obama, we love Osama,” a chorus of support for the tragic murder of three thousand innocent American men, women, and children just over eleven years ago. In the same protest a five-year-old girl held a poster that called for the beheading of those who would offend the prophet. All over a YouTube clip.
Freedom includes the freedom to offend. The trailer was absurd, inaccurate, and embarrassing—the disgusting product of an immature mind. It was shoddily made, poorly written, and horribly acted. But we cannot bow to a world where bad satire leads to the death of diplomats. When we censor a picture—or a word—the radicals exert control over our way of life.
There are those who claim that radical Islam has been so successful because of oppressive governments and poor economic opportunities. This merely shifts the blame, suggesting democracy as a cure-all for the problems of the world. But look what that’s gotten us in the Palestinian Territories. Look at Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya. The oppressive regimes are gone but radical Islam remains, stronger than ever. Political oppression is no more the culprit today than it was during the Crusades, the Inquisition, or the Salem Witch Trials.
Radical Islam is a threat to liberty because it can tolerate no such thing. It is a strain of religion that says that women are inferior, and marks it by rendering them invisible and indistinguishable. It says that drawing or criticizing its prophet is a sin, and kills those who would dare attempt such a thing. It considers itself infallible and punishes by death those who would leave the faith for any reason. It threatens, bullies, intimidates, and explodes. There is little else comparable in the modern world. Radicals of any religion are a dangerous breed, but if a Saudi citizen mocked Jesus on the internet, Christians wouldn’t storm the walls of their Washington embassy and murder their diplomats. When the creators of South Park brought their mockery of the Mormon faith to Broadway, nobody lost his head.
Saudi Arabia’s grand mufti responded to the riots by calling for their end even as he condemned the video, calling upon the United States government to criminalize such content. That’s not how freedom works, it’s not how our nation works, and it’s not how the world should work. As American citizens, our tax dollars pay for a military unparalleled in its reach and its might. That military exists not to conquer nations but to defend those freedoms that we hold most dear. It’s easy to blame the filmmaker; to ask why he would choose to put out such a thing if he was aware of the consequences. Yet even when the content is incorrect and atrocious, that choice—to mock, to criticize, and to produce terrible videos—is one that we must either protect with every tool in the arsenal of American power, or else sink into the sorry company of nations too afraid to stand up to the chorus of those who would bully our men, enslave our women, and erase our liberty.