On June 4, 2009, addressing an audience in Cairo, Egypt, Barack Obama declared that “America is not—and never will be—at war with Islam” and that “I consider it part of my responsibility as President of the United States to fight against negative stereotypes of Islam wherever they appear.” True to his word, Obama has now carried his struggle against defamation of Islam to Pakistani television, where, in an official U.S. government film, he and his Secretary of State have recently been denouncing the Mohammed-mocking short video called “Innocence of Muslims.” They have excoriated this YouTube trailer frequently enough to reinforce the mad belief that every film produced, every book printed in this country comes within the purview of the government. On the State Department film critique, the president declares that “we reject the efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others.” Mrs. Clinton adds that “the U. S. government had absolutely nothing to do with this video“ and “we absolutely reject its content.” For the acts of savagery in Benghazi and elsewhere supposedly triggered by what the president called in his UN General Assembly address of 25 September the “crude and disgusting” video, Clinton has reserved her favorite epithet of severe disapprobation: “unacceptable.”
This campaign on behalf of (supposedly beleaguered) Islam has already registered considerable successes. Any reader of newspapers, and not only those in thrall to liberal sycophancy, will notice the way in which standard usage now reserves for Islam a place of honor denied to Christianity or Judaism. Everywhere in the news media we find allusions to “the Prophet Mohammed,” capital-P and all. The equivalent deferential usage would be “Christ our Savior” or “Moses our Teacher,” and either would be ludicrous to see in print anywhere but in a parochial religious publication or context.
How far back, one begins to wonder, will the Obama administration’s campaign against “negative stereotypes of Islam” eventually extend? What effect will it have on, for example, the college curriculum? In Dante’s Inferno, long a fixture of Great Books courses in America and other countries, we find in Canto 28, verses 30-31 the “mutilated Mahomet,” consigned to Hell along with “other disseminators of scandal and of schism.” Will this passage be excised, along with Gustave Dore’s famous illustration of it, when the imams decide to publicize it for riot incitement, or will it merely be condemned by the White House and State Department?
In the eighteenth century play (later turned into one of Mozart’s greatest operas) called “Le Mariage de Figaro” by Beaumarchais, we find the following speech, by a character who is a writer: “I put together a comedy of manners set in the seraglio (harem)…I think I can criticize Mahomet without scruples: straight away an envoy…from I don’t know where, arrives to complain that my verses cause offense in the Sublime Porte (the Ottoman capital), Persia, part of the Indian subcontinent, all of Egypt, the kingdoms of Barca (Ethiopia), Tripoli, Algeria and Morocco: and hey presto! My comedy is incinerated, to satisfy Mahometan princes of whom none, as far as I know, can even read, while they bruise our backs, calling us Christian dogs.” Will the government have to censor, or at least censure, Beaumarchais?
Luckily, Mozart dropped this theme from his opera. But he was less lucky with his “Turkish” opera entitled “The Abduction from the Seraglio,” which deals with the clash of values between Christianity and Islam. No conductor who wishes to live beyond opening night now dares to touch this opera, except in bowdlerized form—such as a 1997 American version which changes the torture to be inflicted on the heroine by a sheikh into a lavishing of seductive gifts. Muslim threats of violence (beheading provided at no extra charge) have effectively removed the opera from the repertoire. (In 2006 the Deutsche Oper Berlin dropped Mozart’s Idomeneo from its schedule because of anonymous threats to performers and audience. The likely provocation was a scene in which the heads of Jesus, Mahomet, Buddha, and Poseidon are carried onto the stage.)
And what will be the fate of John Stuart Mill’s ON LIBERTY (1859), perhaps the most articulate defense of freedom of expression ever written, because of the passage, which many would apply to September’s rampaging mobs in post-Qaddafi Libya and post-Mubarak Egypt and post-Ben Ali Tunisia:
“Despotism is a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians, provided the end be their improvement, and the means justified by actually effecting that end. Liberty, as a principle, has no application to any state of things anterior to the time when mankind have become capable of being improved by free and equal discussion. Until then, there is nothing for them but implicit obedience to an Akbar or a Charlemagne, if they are so fortunate as to fine one.” Here we have not only an oblique allusion to the backwardness of “the East” but also a prescient sharp criticism of those who waxed euphoric over the Arab Spring before it entered its autumnal phase.
More is at stake in the Obama administration’s attempt to divert attention from the catastrophic failure of its policies of outreach, engagement, and apology than the fate of a wretched 14-minute film dredged up from obscurity by Islamists to justify their well-planned violence, carefully scheduled for the anniversary of 9/11.
Edward Alexander’s most recent book is The State of the Jews: A Critical Appraisal (Transaction Publishers).