In Crowds and Power, the late Elias Canetti, a wonderfully gifted writer and Nobel laureate, brought a unique perspective in examining the human condition and history under the stress of mobs in politics.
When individuals gathered together turn into a crowd and then erupt into a mob, the transition from one into another is the obliteration, even momentarily, of the individual as a thinking being reduced physically into a mindless atom constituent of a mass set in motion by the wish to demonstrate power.
The crowd as mob, wrote Canetti, “wants to experience for itself the strongest possible feeling of its own animal force and passion and, as means to this end, it will use whatever social pretexts and demands offer themselves.”
The politics of the Arab-Muslim world of late — or at least since the 1979 revolution in Iran that brought clerics with a medieval mind-set to power — has been reduced to the pathology of the mob in politics.
This is not unique in history and, for instance, as it was with the pathology of mob politics during the “reign of terror” in France or the Maoist “cultural revolution” in China, the situation in the Arab-Muslim world may likely pass at some point in the future.
In the meantime, however, it should be clearly understood that there is no reasoning with mobs, and any sign of weakness in terms of appeasing mobs by acknowledging or giving in to their demands amounts to stoking their wild frenzy.
Those religious and political leaders at the head of Muslim mobs, or riding them for their own demagogic ends, sense that they are pretty close to intimidating the West into surrendering on the subject of free speech, and accepting that mocking what is sacred to Muslims — their religion, their prophet and their sacred book — must be deemed offensive and banned.
Free speech is the pulse of a free society, the antidote to the pathology of politics driven by mobs. And, moreover, free speech as the hallmark of individual freedom distinguishes the West from the Rest and, in particular, the Arab-Muslim world.
Yet once again free speech is threatened not as much by the pathology of mob politics, but by the weakness of those in the West who mistakenly believe Muslims might have a point and their demand should be met in some fashion.
This is what President Obama said at the UN this week in responding to the mob frenzy in the Arab-Muslim world: “The future must not belong to those who slander the prophet of Islam.”
When one finishes parsing the sentence, one is left thinking the president of the United States agrees with Muslim mobs, and denouncing those who cause offence by ridiculing what others hold sacred can only mean admitting free speech should be abridged.
On the contrary, what needs to be said to the Arab-Muslim world, irrespective of how mobs there engage in rampaging their own societies, is that the West as a civilization is also defined by something sacred.
This something sacred and universal in appeal is individual freedom, manifest in the principle of free speech in whose defence people have made the ultimate sacrifice and, hence, this principle is non-negotiable.