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Can We Turn Hate Into Reason?

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I've been racking my brain to find something -- anything -- good to say about the US-made pathologically Islamophobic film that has triggered the deadly riots now creating bloodshed across the Muslim world.

My conclusion: There is nothing good to say about this film.

Is there anything at all to salvage from the dangerous contretemps is has caused?

Well, maybe.

If Egyptian Muslims -- and all Muslims -- could come to understand two things: The US government had nothing to do with this film at any point -- the US Government doesn't make films attacking -- or praising -- particular religions. In America, it's known as the Separation Between Church and State. And it is a cornerstone of our Bill of Rights.

The second thing angry Muslims need to understand is much harder because it runs counter to so much of Arab culture. It is a quote usually attributed to Voltaire. It says: " I disagree with what you have to say but will fight to the death to protect your right to say it."

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"Protect your right to say it" -- this is the essence of free speech. At the risk of restating the obvious, this is the free speech that Muslim and Arab revolutionaries throughout the Middle East have only so recently won.

Yet it would be unreasonable of us to suggest that "protect your right to say it" is a construct about which average Middle Eastern peoples know anything at all. In fact, it is totally alien to them. And, quite likely, rejected out of hand.

Whether this thought will ever find a home in the majority of Arab minds is a work in progress. Today there are literally thousands of Arab and Muslim intellectuals who are totally comfortable with Voltaire's words -- who live his aspirations every day of their lives.

It is going to be largely up to these men and women to adopt this cornerstone of free speech. It's difficult to see how George W. Bush's "Democracy-Building" programs could make a substantial contribution.

But whoever takes it on can be certain that it won't happen quickly and without pain.

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William Fisher has managed economic development programs in the Middle East and elsewhere for the US State Department and the US Agency for International Development. He served in the international affairs area in the Kennedy Administration and now (more...)

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