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On the Savage Ad and Western Values

In US and Europe, freedoms and human rights are much valued, but when it comes to Muslims, there are always exceptions.

The incident about the subway ad sponsored by anti-Muslim activist Pamela Geller (“In any war between the civilized man and the savage support the civilized man. Support Israel, defeat Jihad”), and the arrest of Mona Eltahawy over spray painting the ad, leaves one disillusioned with many of the Western world’s much celebrated values.

One of the classic questions that I often encounter as a Muslim and Egyptian is whether my religion is “compatible” with democracy and human rights — a question about which I have been cynical because it sounds to me like asking if my religion is transformable to the ways of the “civilized people.”

I find myself in front of two choices: The first is to explain that my religion is not that bad and that there could be ways for it to live up to the standards set by the “West.” And the second is to try to prove that we Muslims are flexible enough to revise our religion’s principles and rulings so that we get closer to civilization. This can lead you to become moderate, not as in adhering to the Wasateya (moderate) scholarly school of Islamic Jurisprudence, but perhaps by being a Muslim who is not-very-Muslim, in an attempt to prevent your life and worldview from contradicting Western values, which are said to denote civilization.

Hypocritical Values

Apparently we are also supposed to conform and maintain “self-restraint” when we find Western governments contradicting the very values that they ask us to adopt.

I know that the terms “West” and “Western values” are too broad to generalize about, and I acknowledge that within Islam there are differences, various schools, for it is a mercy for Muslims to have different scholarly opinions, as the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, told us.

But I also know that liberalism, democracy, and human rights in their modern formation that we know now originated, mostly, in Western circles, from the era of the Renaissance on, even if with minimal direct and indirect contributions from the peoples of other civilizations, including Muslims.

After all it is US State Secretary Hillary Clinton, EU’s Catherine Ashton, the UK’s Prime Minister David Cameron, and other Western leaders who have been urging us to democratize, reform, and respect human rights. They are so keen on reminding us time and again that we need to follow the path their countries followed, to the point that the US military aid to Egypt is contingent on indicators that the government is “implementing policies to protect freedom of expression, association and religion and due process of law.”

Apparently we are also supposed to conform and maintain “self-restraint” when we find Western governments contradicting the very values that they ask us to adopt and applying double standards in line with their geopolitical interests and/or race-centered biases.

I can’t speak for American Muslims but I realize that they are supposed to tolerate anti-Muslim racist gestures on the grounds of freedom of speech. When you ask the classic question of why anti-Israeli hate speech is not equally tolerated in America, you get the classic unconvincing answer that the issue of Israel is “different,” its case is special.

No, it is not. Double standards are double standards no matter how some in America try to justify them.

The Clear Redlines

If we assume that Israel is a democratic state and that only a minority commit “savage” crimes against Palestinians in isolated incidents (I would assume it’s a minority just for the sake of this argument), then it’s significant to remember how it is practically not a possibility to see the exact Geller ad put in the same place, with only “support Israel, defeat Jihad” replaced with “support Palestine, defeat Israeli terrorism.” You won’t find many agreeing that you are only referring to the terrorists among Israelis and not all of them, just like some American writers who rejected Tahawi’s act are telling us that Geller’s ad is referring to terrorist Jihadis only and not all Muslims.

For the past decades it has been typically easy to realize that America’s freedom of expression is mostly inapplicable to criticism of Zionism. Despite the tensions that happen from time to time between American politicians (like Obama for example) and Israeli politicians; despite the discreet voices of writers or scholars who attempt to break taboos about the Jewish state’s injustice, there are many redlines that no politician in America dares to cross and no public figure is allowed to change.

It feels awkward to state the obvious about America’s double standards, which have been criticized time and again. But what’s more awkward is that those double standards continue till this day to mar the values that Americans cherish.

The case in Europe is not identical to that in the US, but the message in the West is generally clear. Freedoms and human rights are much valued, but when it comes to Muslims, there are always exceptions: The Ground Zero Mosque controversy in America, the veil ban in France, anti-Muslim extremism in the Netherlands, and the minarets ban in Switzerland; various cases each with distinct circumstances and background — but the same victims, Muslims.

That doesn’t mean that one should not appreciate America’s first amendment or Europe’s achievements on the path of human rights and dignity. It’s only honest to say that we, in the Arab world, have been deprived of many of the basic freedoms and rights that the West knows, which is in great part why this region is witnessing uprisings. But as double standards continue to sharpen, many Muslims are getting more and more disillusioned with the West and its values of freedom and liberty, and are likely to question their universality.