Ester Meerman: On the embassy clashes – can we please all act sane again now?

Posted on September 19, 2012 by

Photo: Ester Meerman

For me, the past seven days will go down in history as the week in which large parts of the world collectively lost their minds. It all started with this idiot in the US, who made a particularly bad film that insulted the prophet Muhammad.

The audiovisual monstrosity caused general hysteria among devout Muslims, and lead to numerous protests, which in some countries even resulted in deaths. All the while almost none of the protesters had even seen this supposedly offensive movie. It was all very ridiculous.

But the reaction from the West to these events was also quite hysterical. ‘We’ screamed bloody murder and pretended the end times were nigh and the world would soon perish in a clash of civilisations. A gross exaggeration, considering the fact that these protesters represent a very small minority and seeing that the number of Muslims that by now have denounced the (violent) protests, is far larger than the total of rioters that showed up to protest the movie worldwide to begin with.


Every religion has its extremists: Anders Breivik labeled himself in his manifesto as a ‘Christian crusader’ and the Ku Klux Klan was Protestant. Yet the average Christian is never associated with either of those. So why do all Muslims get lumped into the same category as a couple of fools with beards that are far too easily offended?

In Cairo, from Wednesday evening onwards, the riots had little to do anymore with anger about the movie (or trailer, or whatever it is). There were virtually no beards to be seen. It was mostly young people, who once again eagerly seized the opportunity to act upon their deep-seated hatred of the police. When the police cleared Tahrir square early Saturday morning, I concluded both sides of the spectrum had suffered a temporary fit of insanity. As the mess cleared up, we could all swiftly get back to acting mentally sound again.

But as this piece gets published, I find myself standing outside an embassy in Cairo once again, camera in hand. Waiting for #muslimrage round two. This time their anger will be directed at croissant enthusiasts among us, because the French magazine Charlie Hebdo has just published two caricatures of Muhammed.


How utterly childish. Don’t get me wrong: the fact that people will attack embassies when someone insults their prophet is absurd, but one does not solve that just by provoking them more. Sure, there are Muslims that get bent out of shape quickly, which is ridiculous, but then why do we insist on poking more holes in their thin skin? How constructive is that, exactly? We like to see ourselves as the presumably ‘more advanced’ civilisation, right? The intellectual counterpart to this ‘backward culture’? Then why are we acting like a little kid by adding fuel to the fire?

‘That will teach them.’ How? Will it help them understand the idea of freedom of speech? When someone insults you for the hundredth time, do you get less angry then you were the first time? I strongly doubt it. It seems to me it would only make you angrier. In the spirit of ‘goddammit, fucking stop it!’.

Tomorrow the newspapers will most likely be filled again with photos of rebelling beards. ‘Such barbarians!’ the West will collectively exclaim. But if this escalates, this is a fire that we helped start ourselves. And that’s also pretty barbaric.


I spent some time teaching in Cairo, especially to young people coming from disadvantaged neighbourhoods. Like more than thirty percent of the Egyptian population, most of these young adults live below or just above the poverty line. An important conclusion I can draw from my days as a teacher, is that years of oppression by their own government and indoctrination of both state media and the local mosque have clearly had its effect.

Freedom of speech is a unaffordable luxury when you are constantly repressed. Forming your own opinion is something you do in your spare time, which you do not have when you have to hold down three jobs to provide for your family. Critical thinking is a novel concept for most Egyptian university graduates. Trying to see someone else’s point of view and developing your own original ideas are discouraged in the regular Egyptian school system, rather than taught and applauded.

I believe that everyone should be able to freely speak their mind. Freedom of speech is a concept that should be defended above all else. But in a mature manner. Just because our counterparts respond irrationally, doesn’t mean our collective intelligence should also steep to the level of primates.


If ‘we’ are so much ‘wiser’, as many of us claim to be, then let us behave like intelligent adults and in engage in a civil dialogue rather than egging them on. Let us help this ‘backward culture’ develop and invest in a better education system and a productive economy, so that equal opportunities can be created and the country can be rescued from the gutter by a young, well-educated population.

So the children of my former students will learn how to think for themselves, instead of blindly following what the local beard in the mosque has to say. So that they can defend their own opinions with convincing arguments, instead of starting a riot. So that, if someone is ever to make such a moronic movie again, we can all keep our sanity.

NB. this was originally written in Dutch (here), so the above is quite possible a poor translation. Suck it up.