09/14/2012 01:19 pm ET Updated Nov 14, 2012

The Muhammad "Film" Protests and the Crimes of Fundamentalism

Here we go again. Another supposed affront to the Prophet, and another wave of barbarous mobs clamoring at the walls of American embassies. This time there is something of a twist: Unlike the Danish cartoon controversy or the desecration of a Koran by American military personnel, the offensive act in question cannot be associated with any major Western media outlet or government agency. The Innocence of Muslims is a farcically bad, zero-budget Internet movie whose greatest insults are to the art of filmmaking. It hardly seems like the symbol of Western power's hostility to Islam. "Muslims rise to the bait every time," Ed Husain has said of this wave of anger, and in this case especially the bait seems not to be worth the effort. Can there be any objective lesson more clear on the irrational, destructive overreaction that fundamentalism breeds?

As in the past, the American government has in its public statements discouraged the blaspheming of Islam. Some will wonder if that amounts to a form of self-censorship, but our commitment to free speech should be reluctant to tolerate speech designed only to insult and provoke. "Fighting words" are not protected speech in this country's First Amendment tradition, but our definition of fighting words is appropriately narrow: The provocation must be direct and immediate, the verbal equivalent of a physical blow. If we are sitting in an Internet cafe and pulling up a video on YouTube that we know in advance is likely to offend us, we clearly have not been confronted in a way equivalent to physical attack. We sought out the images on the screen; we can stop watching them when we wish; and we can reflect on them at our leisure. For these reasons, we should have little patience for those who would attempt any sort of apology for fundamentalist outrage in this instance: Speech intended only to insult and provoke is illegitimate, but violent response to that speech is also illegitimate under almost all circumstances.

Writing on the Muhammad cartoon controversy, anthropologist Saba Mahmood has suggested reasons why a few sketches by Danes might be deemed in some quarters a deeply personal attack warranting a frenzied riposte. For many Muslims, the Prophet is not simply a person to be admired, but the pattern of a perfect life. The highest calling of such believers is imitation of the prophet, so that seeing him ridiculed and belittled summons deep resentments, personal and religious. In many ways this is a perceptive anthropology of response to the cartoons. In other ways it is the kind of academic writing that makes me wince. Though it has critical things to say about those who made and published the Muhammad cartoons, it does not direct its critical attention toward religious fundamentalism itself. The fact that certain views are held as religious truth does not automatically impose upon the rest of us the burden of respecting them -- especially when the demand for respect is made in threatening tones.

Some of the best guidance on how we should recognize religious prophets, images, and texts comes from the medieval Muslim philosopher Al-Farabi. In his treatise on the perfect state -- one of those books that everyone should read -- he describes revealed religion as symbolizing truth. We err when we take religion's symbols to be ends in themselves and think that our obligation to pursue truth is satisfied by the performance of ritual or the veneration of a prophet. We also err, he claims, when we abandon that pursuit because religion is only symbolic, and because those who claim to speak truth are often in error. The perfect state is founded on the principle of justice that religion teaches us through its symbols, and that is demonstrable through philosophy; Al-Farabi strongly felt the latter was the better path, but did not exclude the former.

But of course Muslim fundamentalists will want little to do with Al-Farabi, just as Hindu fundamentalists would want little to do with Gandhi, the ayatollahs little to do with Henry Corbin, and Christian fundamentalists little to do with Nicholas of Cusa. The greatest crime of fundamentalism is against the faith tradition for which it claims to speak. It presents to the world the ugliest possible face of a religion and bullies adherents into accepting ignorance of their own traditions as the true path. I would like to think that the particularly ludicrous nature of this overreaction to a supposed blasphemy indicates that Islamic fundamentalism has grown desperate: In the wake of the Arab Spring, its claims to speak for the ummah are transparently false. These demonstrations are not being led, we should note, by the Islamist political parties who have a voice in newly-democratic governments and who have generally adhered to democratic procedures. All Islamic extremism can do is summon mobs for increasingly puerile demonstrations; its political language has been made moot by the democratic movements of the Arab Spring. One only hopes that its death throes will pass quickly.