Only now, weeks after the blatantly anti-Islamic film “Innocence of Muslims” posted on YouTube, making headlines and spawning violent reactions from Muslims across the globe, have tensions begun to ease a bit. Oh, to be sure, mainstream media and American attention has moved on, only to return when the next powder keg blows, while much of the rest of the world is left to grapple with serious questions of rights and responsibilities in this new age of technology.
These recent riots across the Muslim world bring into high relief serious questions about the freedom of speech, for us as citizens of the United States, as well as participants in a global society made smaller and smaller with the advance of technology.
The problem, at first glance, seems like the usual violent overreaction by Muslim extremists whose narrow view of religion and politics seeks only to protect their view at the expense of the rights of others who may disagree.
We are quickly reminded of the fatwa pronounced on Salman Rushdie for the horrific action of writing a novel (itself a work of fiction), as well as the assassination of Dutch director Theo van Gogh for his work “Submission” about the treatment of women in Islam.
But a deeper look into this issue, instead of bringing clarity and self-assured anti-jihadist jihad, reveals a real problem that is not so black and white, not so clearly one of the fundamental right of freedom of speech versus ignorant fundamentalism, but rather one that is complicated, with subtleties and nuances not conducive to entertainment-news sound bites and the glib remarks of politicians.
The question becomes, not so much what freedoms we as U.S. citizens have with respect to our Constitution and domestic laws, but rather what extent should we, as participants in a larger global society, respect the various notions of freedom of speech at work in other countries and cultures different from our own.
For, when we look closer at the latest incident itself, instead of finding the literary musings of a great novelist or the social critique of a world-class film director, we find a joke of a movie—though not really a movie at all: more like a few scenes of such low quality and disconnect that one doubts the existence of a larger work. Some have called it “repugnant,” but what makes it so is not its content, which can scarcely be taken seriously, but rather the intention behind it.
The title itself (Innocence of Muslims) makes little sense—if predicated of the film’s contents. However, if the title was a display of ironic/sarcastic foresight, then it fits all too well. It would be hard to find anyone in the Western world who would take it seriously. There is no plot, no character development, in fact, no real characters—only thinly disguised stereotypes meant to offend.
And that—the intention to offend—seems to be the only real purpose of the work itself.
Now it must be said that intention to offend is not, in and of itself, always a bad thing. And the intention to offend religion especially is not either. (I find myself doing both as often as possible.) The problem arises when the intention to offend is also an intention to provoke, not discussion and debate, a la Rushdie and van Gogh, but violence and riot.
A few details are warranted:
As it turns out, the video was posted on YouTube in early July, 2012 as “The Real Life of Muhammad” and “Muhammad Movie Trailer,” but received little or no attention. It was then dubbed into Arabic, re-titled with the aforementioned ironic/sarcastic name, and broadcast on Egyptian television on September 9th—two days before the eleventh anniversary of 9/11.
And the rest, as they say, is history.
(Except that it’s still going on, and will continue to escalate in the future.)
So why is this case NOT the same as that of Rushdie and van Gogh, overlooking of course the artistic and social merit of these two? Well, it strikes me that this incident is less like writing a book or making a movie criticizing specific points of any (and all) religions and more like yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theatre or assembling Nazis to march through Jewish neighborhoods in Skokie, Il in1977.
The first are clearly examples of protected free speech, the second is not, and the third is still hotly debated 35 years the case went to court.
Here is where American jurisprudence only helps so far. For U.S. laws are clear that free speech can be limited if the immediate result is incitement to riot. (This is what the city of Skokie argued—and lost—in their case against the Nazis: that their uniformed presence in a neighborhood with a significant number of Holocaust survivors would incite riot.)
To complicate matters, the freedom of speech laws are even more restrictive in other countries—and not just those “narrow-minded,” theocratic Muslim ones either. In fact, Canada as well as much of Europe has free-speech laws that significantly restrict its exercise. For example, the infamous members of Westboro Baptist Church, who recently won a Supreme Court case supporting their right to picket the funerals of U.S. soldiers, are not allowed to protest north of the border in Canada, as that country’s hate speech laws forbid such activity. (Many in the U.S. disagreed with SCOTUS’s ruling and were in favor of restricting free speech in this case.)
And in most European countries, publicly denying the Holocaust is a crime. As is racist hate speech (just ask Chelsea footballer John Terry).
The production and “marketing” of “Innocence of Muslims” might or might not meet the criteria of hate-speech, but that is neither my concern nor my point.
The fact that the video was produced with the intention to inflame Muslims, and that when it initially failed to do so it was dubbed into Arabic and specifically presented to Egyptian television to be broadcast to millions, makes it hard to deny that its real intention was to promote and incite riot.
The missing pieces here are the internet and technology—and the laws that have failed to keep up with them. For with social media, YouTube, smart phones, iPads, Skype, etc…, placing an inflammatory video in the right hands with the capability to reach millions almost instantaneously just may be the 21st century version of standing on a street corner inciting folks to riot.
In fact, it may be worse.
Not recognizing this, I fear, will have even more dire consequences in the future.
Editor’s note: The usual practice in the BLS Program is to provide direct links to primary sources when possible. However, in the case of the video discussed in this entry, we decided it would be imprudent to link to it directly. If you want to view the video for yourself, a search of the title will lead you to the original posting, various repostings, and sundry articles and editorials about the video and its aftermath.