The American ambassador to Libya is dead after riots in that country and Egypt reportedly triggered by the hostile publicity given by an Egyptian TV cleric to a YouTube parody of the Prophet Muhammad made in the U.S.A. There's really nothing new I can say at this point. In a pluralistic world, in any civilized nation, Muslims do not have any right to make physical reprisals against people who "insult" or "blaspheme" against their faith by making images of Muhammad. Muslims have no more right not to have their beliefs insulted than any other group. However, despite whatever rage Americans may feel, the U.S. has no more right to take punitive military action against Libya than it did to interfere in the late civil war that toppled Col. Khadafy. We can certainly withdraw our diplomatic delegation and impose whatever economic sanctions Congress pleases, but Americans have no right to go above the head of Libyan authorities to punish Libyan citizens. Nor should American Muslims pay for Libyan crimes, however much any episode of this kind puts one in a mosque-burning mood. The most (and best) one can do to protest yesterday's atrocity is to remain fearless in speaking frankly about the faults of Islam and honestly about whether religion, culture or politics actually triggers these tantrums. Meanwhile, the provocateur of the hour, the filmmaker Sam Bacile, seems hardly worthy of sympathy. From his new hiding place he declares that "Islam is a cancer" while proudly identifying himself as an "Israeli Jew." But the only principled basis for criticizing Islam, or the only objective basis for determining the extent to which religion itself is to blame for the Benghazi attack, is atheism. Anything else is simply special pleading for one's own set of indefensible superstitions against someone else's. My attitude would be the same had Bacile declared himself a born-again Christian -- and indeed, the infamous Terry Jones has moved quickly to endorse Bacile and his work. But once you accept that religion is the cancer -- or at least that dogmatic monotheism is cancerous -- then neither Bacile nor Jones has a leg to stand on, and we can begin to think more clearly about whether religion or other factors explain modern Muslim tantrums. Remember: no matter how self-evidently stupid many Muslim beliefs may be, the majority of Muslims worldwide don't pull this crap. If Islam itself were the cancer, the world might be dead already. But something definitely ails much of the Muslim world; I just wouldn't trust Christians or Jews to prescribe the cure.
Update: Confusion and controversy are swirling about the filmmaker's identity. The Atlantic has interviewed a "militant Christian" activist who reportedly consulted the production and claims that "Sam Bacile" is a pseudonym for someone whose real identity he doesn't know. The activist, Steve Klein, is convinced that "Bacile" isn't Jewish but is probably an American citizen of Middle Eastern Christian descent, either a Copt or an evangelical Protestant. As long as the film's authorship is in doubt, conspiracy theories will flourish, but let's not lose sight of the truth. In an age of easy access to media, the appearance of something like "Innocence of Muslims," as the Bacile film is called, was inevitable. Islamic intolerance of insults guarantees insults. That has more to do with our culture than with Islam. Perceived "humorless" or "stuck-up" people of any background are going to be butts for leveling humor from people who resent "superior" attitudes, or from those who simply think everything is a joke. Angry Islamists will have to prove an ability to kill offenders in the U.S. before they have any hope of deterring such stuff, and the odds are not in their favor. That's true worldwide, and that may explain some of the anger we see.