One of the most significant revelations from last week’s furore surrounding ‘The Innocence of Muslims’ film has been the way Western governments reacted to it. The White House condemned the film as did the American embassy in Cairo. That much is understandable. To condemn a film as offensive, silly, or provocative is not to undermine the principles on which it was produced.
Indeed, the White House made a point of stressing the First Amendment which enshrines the right to free speech. Yet, behind the scenes, that’s precisely what they were busy undermining. Officials lobbied Google (which owns YouTube) to remove the film from its servers, only to be rebuffed.
Yesterday the satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo published cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed. Kneeling and naked, Mohammed is depicted from behind while asking if readers like his butt.
France’s Prime Minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, performed his requisite public pieties by defending the magazine. ‘We are in a country where freedom of expression is guaranteed, including the freedom to caricature,’ he said. Much like the White House, however, the French government spent much of this week exerting pressure on the editors of Charlie Hebdo not to publish the cartoons.
Western governments have invested high hopes in the Arab Spring producing more liberal and pluralistic societies in the Middle East. What does it say, then, when they fail to stand up for precisely those values at home they would like to see exported abroad?