Blasphemy and Empire

Americans are baffled: why oh why are Muslims up in arms over a YouTube video, one which no one in America even knew about prior to the attack on our Libyan consulate and the murder of Ambassador Chris Stevens? Having abandoned their own religion sometime in the last century or so, they just don’t understand why someone would get all hopped up over a little thing like blasphemy — after all, all one has to do is turn on the TV or view the latest Madonna music video and you’ll get a full dose of it.

Of course, this isn’t true for everyone: in Flyover Country, the rubes still persist in the faith of their fathers, and our elites pander to that whenever they must. However, the Georgetown cocktail party circuit and the world of the Washington power brokers isn’t a notably devout milieu: it is instead decidedly secular, and tinged with more than a little contempt for those Flyover Folks who must be pandered to around election time.

This is one major reason for Washington’s incomprehension when it comes to understanding the wave of hatred for the US currently sweeping the Middle East. That complete cluelessness is endemic, too, in the US media, where reporters are no different than the elites they cover in their militantly secular outlook. So when a deliberately insulting video depicting the prophet Mohammed goes out over the internet, after its makers made a determined effort to get Muslims to view it, they scratch their heads and say they just don’t get it.

Even as the protests spread, they insist it just can’t be about what Muslim protesters say it’s about: it’s all just a “flimsy” excuse, as Reason magazine editor Matt Welch told “national security Democrat” Heather Hurlburt. The US response, he went on to aver, was “not a robust statement of American values.” It was, instead, “kick me, please” rhetoric from a spineless Obama administration. This is a fair summation of the general right-wing response to the crisis, limning the Romney campaign, and over at the Weekly Standard the neocons concur:

What we have seen unfold in the Middle East over the last week is what distinguishes the region’s societies from our own. The protests in Cairo and Benghazi were not really about the film, the preacher, or Muslim sensitivities. They were an exercise in raw power politics, partly aimed at intramural rivals in the Arab political sphere, but mainly against the United States.”

Like Welch, the Standard found attempts by the White House to remind YouTube of its terms of service agreement “appalling.” Like Welch, the magazine claims the protests are about something other than what the protesters themselves say they’re about. This view isn’t limited to the political right, however: it’s just what Rachel Maddow and some other Deep Thinkers on the left have been saying. Forget the video, we’re told: it’s not about that. It was all a pre-planned carefully-thought-out al-Qaeda operation, in effect another 9/11 — maybe not as spectacular, but hey it happened on the same day. Now that the administration is denying this, however, I bet we’ll be hearing much less about that particular theory from Rachel and the other partisan shills at MSNBC.

In any case, the Standard is right about one thing: the riots now threatening the security of US diplomats throughout the Muslim world do indeed dramatize what distinguishes the region’s societies from our own, and it’s all about the role of religion in society.

Yes, I know, it’s hard to believe: how could any civilized person take seriously the impulse to achieve transcendence and find meaning in the universe besides the pursuit of pleasure, fame, and money? I mean, really! How primitive can you get? Didn’t that kind of superstition go out with corsets, free silver, and the horse and buggy?

A society in which blasphemy is impermissible is inconceivable to the warlords of Washington, who, after all, live in the same society you and I do: one in which religion is increasingly pushed to the margins and regarded by the country’s elites with ill-concealed contempt. It’s a culture in which gays want to get married, straights are setting records for divorce, and the way to appeal to women in an election year is to make it easier for them to kill their unwanted babies. It is, in short, a culture so far removed from the “medieval” world of our recently conquered Middle Eastern satraps that the distance can only be measured in centuries rather than mere miles.

In the modern world, physical distance is no barrier to empire-building on the other side of the globe: however, this only exacerbates the problems created by the incalculable cultural distance between Washington, D.C., and the somewhat run-down suburb of Benghazi, in Libya, where a mob took the lives of four Americans.

The Romans never had this problem. Although they were just as decadent as we aspire to be, and soon abandoned the pagan faith of their fathers, they understood the mindset of their less “advanced” subjects: the German barbarians, who worshipped their violent and storm-driven gods, the Jews who prayed to a single G-d and awaited the arrival of His Messenger, the mystic cultists who performed their secrets rites in honor of Isis, Demeter, and Bacchus, the Greek deities who quarreled like spoiled children and started wars to amuse themselves at mankind’s expense. Religion of one sort or another permeated every province and client state of the Roman Empire, and in the Imperial City there was little division between the religious and the political spheres: the Roman emperor was himself considered a god, or at least divine in the formal sense, and was often given a religious title to buttress his legitimacy in the eyes of the populace.

In the modern West, where the only god is Mammon, the riots over those Danish cartoons were “a round of silliness,” as Welch described them. Hardly a surprising opinion from the editor of a magazine that has always been hostile to religion — hence its title — but it’s fair to say this about sums up the general opinion of most Americans, which is why Welch is perfectly within his rights to advocate “a more American response” from Washington — and, although he doesn’t say so, it isn’t hard to imagine what the spirit if not the exact text of that oh-so-American response might be.

No, it’s not just about the video: there’s America’s relationship with the Arab world to consider, and specifically with Libya, Egypt, Yemen, and many of the other countries where rioters are burning our flag and assaulting our embassies. In Libya, we installed their present government and are keeping them on life support through “foreign aid” and “democracy promotion” grants. In Yemen, we’re bombing them: in Egypt, we’re trying to influence their elections, and they’re on the take from us to the tune of over a billion every year. We are, in short, at the center of their world — and yet not of it, indeed distinctly alien to it.

Murray Rothbard was one of the few libertarians who understood the major role religion has played in human societies, and his History of Economic Thought is a monument to that centrality: his analysis furthers an understanding not only of economic history but of all human history. Libertarians, plagued by a militant atheism from the very outset, have stoutly ignored a key aspect of what motivates humans to act as they do, and this has crippled our ability to not only understand but to change the world.

The specifics surrounding how Innocence of Muslims came to the attention of the Muslim world are only now just coming to light, but a phone call from Egyptian Coptic activist Morris Sadek to an Egyptian journalist reportedly had a lot to do with it. The declared intent of the film’s makers and promoters wasn’t to convince ordinary Americans of the deadly threat supposedly represented by Islam, it was to market the movie to Muslims in the hopes some would be instantaneously converted — and they also thought it would be possible to smoke out the secret terrorist “cells” film promoter Steve Klein is convinced are embedded in California and just waiting for the command to strike.

What’s important to note here is that the film’s originators actively sought to promote the film in the Muslim world: it was, in short, a deliberate provocation. Laden with sexual innuendo and outright obscenity, the film isn’t just “amateurish,” as many commentators have noted: there is a leering quality that underscores its calculated depravity and which gives us an important clue to what the video’s creators hoped to accomplish.

The whole story isn’t out there yet. We need to dig deeper into what drove the creators of this cinematic incitement to violence, and discover who funded it, who organized it, and why. Only then can we begin to understand how a YouTube video nobody in America paid any attention to has suddenly threatened to upend American interests and prestige around the world.

Author: Justin Raimondo

Justin Raimondo passed away on June 27, 2019. He was the co-founder and editorial director of, and was a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute. He was a contributing editor at The American Conservative, and wrote a monthly column for Chronicles. He was the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement [Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993; Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000], and An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard [Prometheus Books, 2000].