Over the past decade, I have often despaired about Muslim moderates, describing them as cowardly and defensive–too scared to speak out for their principles for fear that they will be branded bad Muslims. But in several countries where the protests took place, many have criticized the extremists and urged people to voice their opposition to the video in peaceful ways. This is new. Radical Islamists, rampaging mobs, drummed-up outrage, weak leaders and violence–these are familiar aspects of the modern Middle East. What is new is that there are some voices of sanity, and these voices are authentic. The moderates are quieter than the extremists, but that is true almost everywhere…

Few in the Arab world are defending the kind of largely unalloyed freedom of speech with the vigor of those in the West. But it is important to remember that it took the West a long time to embrace broad freedom of expression, especially when it involved attacks on core religious beliefs and symbols. Blasphemy was severely punished even in Britain–thought to be the most liberal country in Europe–in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Even in the U.S., public tolerance for attacks on religion was low until recently. In their recent book American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, Robert Putnam and David Campbell write, “In round numbers … about two-thirds of [American] churchgoers who came of age before 1945 rejected free expression for antireligious views, whereas about two-thirds of churchgoers who came of age after 1965 tolerate such views.” Egyptians are debating their new constitution, and many parties are advocating the adoption of blasphemy laws. If this is the path Egypt follows, it will be a blow to the country’s progress and a setback for the already-too-slow modernization of Islam. Muslim countries need more tolerance, not less.