On Saturday, Ghulam Ahmad Bilour, Pakistan’s railways minister, held a press conference and declared that he would pay $100,000 of his own money to anyone who could capture the maker of a now-infamous YouTube movie trailer that depicts the Prophet Muhammad killing innocent men and juggling underage girls in his desert tent. The clip has careened around the Internet, inspiring violent protests and attacks in some Muslim-majority countries and cities. But it has also inspired bewilderment in the West—how could a trailer so farcically bad be construed by millions of Muslims as representative of the feelings of the majority of Americans toward Islam? Don’t they understand that the video doesn’t speak for the U.S. government? Can’t they lighten up? Don’t they understand freedom of speech?
The short answer is, no, not in the same way that we in the West do.
North American democracy is built upon the ideas of Enlightenment Europe; the sanctity of secularism in government and the free flow of ideas, whether we agree with them or not, is what defines our particular brand. But Western republics can’t expect to see reflections of themselves when they stare, Narcissus-like, into the roiling pool of Middle Eastern governments, still in the infancy of their democracies—at least not yet.
Audience members pray before the start of the Values Voters Summit in Washington, Friday, Sept. 14, 2012. (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)
The Omni Shoreham, in the Woodley Park neighborhood of Washington D.C., is one of those hotels with décor that makes you feel like, as Holly Golightly said of a certain iconic jewelry store in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, “nothing very bad could happen to you there.” The chandeliers are crystal, the carpets are plush, the glow is golden. The wallpaper isn’t even wallpaper—it’s some kind of delicately brocaded fabric. One half expects Audrey Hepburn’s rendition of “Moon River” to pipe into the lobby; instead, there’s a constant stream of big band numbers.
The wide cement walkway that separates Lafayette Park from the front lawn of the White House is the official no man’s land of Washington, D.C.—just north of it lies the rarified sphere of the West Wing, to the south of it, the banalities of life in a sedate city. On the ordinary park side, haggard West Wing staffers make private phone calls while tourists noodle back and forth happily on Segways. Wednesday evening, on the 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue side of the divide, a Secret Service agent made a sweep of the front lawn with his dog at a little before 7 p.m. A flag waved at half-mast in remembrance of the attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya, only hours earlier that left four Americans dead; among them, Ambassador Christopher Stevens—the first American ambassador to be killed in the line of duty since 1979.
The Sisters of Saint Joseph are waiting for a bus, glistening ever so slightly as they stand in the near-100-degree heat of a late June afternoon, huddled under a couple of pine trees that border an asphalt parking lot in Langhorne, Pennsylvania. The blocky, charmless building the lot services is home to the district office of Congressman Mike Fitzpatrick, a Tea Party Republican, and the bus the sisters are waiting for isn’t any old municipal four-wheeler. The Nuns on the Bus are coming to town.
The current media frenzy over Paul Ryan seems to boil down to two things: his fiscal conservatism and his broad-shouldered good looks. Not since John F. Kennedy has a White House hopeful caused such a handsome fuss—Ryan, with his stiff-bristled black hair, aquiline nose, and earnestly furrowed brow has all the lean good looks of an early 20th century prize fighter in the back bar rooms of the Lower East Side.