As Americans were mourning the anniversary of 9/11 this week, we received more tragic news. The U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya was attacked resulting in the death of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.

What motivated these attacks? The answer is not entirely clear. What we do know, however, is this:

  • An elusive film producer from California produced a film depicting the Islamic Prophet Muhammad as a child molester, a womanizer, and a murderer amongst other things.
  • The film was uploaded on YouTube and given Arabic subtitles. Protests in response to the film took place across the Muslim world including Libya.
  • Armed gunmen infiltrated the protestors, assaulted the consulate with gunfire and grenades, and eventually stormed the building resulting in the death of Ambassador Chris Stevens.
  • Initially, it was believed that groups sympathizing with Al-Qaeda used the protests as cover to carry out the attacks, although that is starting to look more unlikely.

As we now mourn the death of Ambassador Stevens and the legacy he leaves behind, a new debate has reared its head. Do we as the American public have a responsibility to be culturally sensitive especially in the era of globalization even if that means we must restrict our freedom of speech?

The film that started it all is a low-budget production entitled “The Innocence of Muslims.” The film cannot be categorized as anything but vile hate-filled propaganda against Islam and Muslims. The film was ignored and did not catch the attention of world until it was given Arabic subtitles and uploaded to YouTube. The reaction in the Middle East was almost immediate. Many incorrectly believed that this was a film sponsored by the American government to slander the name of Islam and the Prophet Muhammad. Protestors took the streets in Egypt, Yemen, and Libya, which led to the tragic death of Ambassador Stevens.

Why did the movie upset Muslims so much? Are Muslims just overly sensitive? Without overly simplifying the root causes driving these protests, there are multiple motivating factors to consider. First, Islam has historically forbidden any physical representation of Prophet Muhammad and Prophet Muhammad himself instructed his followers not to depict any images of him out of fear that people would begin worshipping him instead of God. The fact of the matter however, is that the Prophet has been depicted on many occasions, and his depiction is also present in the rotunda of the United States Supreme Court building in Washington D.C.. Although Muslims living in America have objected to this depiction of the Prophet in the Supreme Court building, there have been no violent protests in reaction to such depictions. The core of the problem lies within the other factors.

Muslims across the Middle East view America through an apprehensive lens. With scandals such as the 2005 abuse of Qur’ans at Guantanamo Bay, the constant drone attacks in Yemen, and the Qur’an burning controversies caused by Pastor Terry Jones in Florida, the United States and the American public are generally viewed as hostile to Islam and Muslims. It is through this context in which we must understand the current on-going protests and riots across the Muslim world. There is no doubt that those protesting are upset with the vile desecration of the Prophet’s image in the film in controversy, but I would argue that the primary force driving these protests has been this belief that the United States is at war with Islam.

It is important to note that tensions are furthered by the fact that many of the countries where these protests are occurring do not guarantee the freedom of speech, and they have various blasphemy laws to prevent films like “The Innocence of Muslims” from ever being produced or seen. Those protesting likely do not understand that the US government is limited in its ability to deal with the film. This misunderstanding fuels the anger directed against the US government and paints the government as an implicit partner in the message behind the film.

With our image in the Middle East tarnished at a time where our outreach to this part of the world is critical, it is essential that we approach any potentially sensitive matter with caution. The United States made the right decision when the State Department and the White House moved to distance themselves from the film and expressed their sympathy for those disrespected while simultaneously taking a strong stance against the violence committed in response to the film. The White House also made the right move when it requested that the film be taken down.

Some might argue that the actions taken by the Obama administration are an affront to our values of freedom of speech. What must be understood however is that freedom of speech has never been understood as the complete freedom to say anything at any time.1 The desecration of religious figures with the clear intent to incite violence at a time when tensions are volatile puts American lives overseas at risk. That is not and should not be protected speech.

This film had one purpose: to cause trouble in the Middle East. The filmmakers had their wishes come true when a few Libyan radicals killed a man who was viewed in the White House as Libya and the Middle East’s best hope.

The violence we see across the Middle East cannot be justified in any capacity. The responsible parties should immediately be brought to justice. This does not mean that the filmmakers’ hands are clean. They intended to incite violence through their hateful film, and they should be treated accordingly.

The world is not always black and white, and the issue of the freedom of speech is no different. Rather than cast everything in one category or the other, it is critical to understand that we as Americans must be culturally sensitive enough to avoid inciting violence. We are living in a globalized world where people have different values and different views on life. When we understand that a particular expression is so hateful and so degrading to a group or culture on the other side of the world that it threatens our relationship with that group and also puts the lives of innocents at risk, we have the responsibility to draw a line and reject those expressions. This does not violate the principles of the freedom of speech. Rather, this protects the basic dignity of peoples across the globe while promoting fair and objective criticisms instead of vicious slander.

1 The US Supreme Court has explained that there are circumstances in which the complete freedom of speech is not permissible, and this does not violate the Constitution. Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire, 315 U.S. 568 (1942).

Allowing the broadest scope to the language and purpose of the Fourteenth Amendment, it is well understood that the right of free speech is not absolute at all times and under all circumstances. There are certain well-defined and narrowly limited classes of speech, the prevention and punishment of which have never been thought to raise any Constitutional problem. These include the lewd and obscene, the profane, the libelous, and the insulting or ‘fighting’ words—those which by their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace.

5 thoughts on “The Film That Shocked the World

  1. Excellent article. I think you explained very well why the protesters in the Middle East are taking such issue with this film. The problem that you and the protesters (and many Americans from the opposite perspective) seem to miss is that it is ok for different peoples to have different cultures and different values. We live in a globalized world where disparate cultures are going to interact, and there is nothing wrong with that. If Muslim countries want to censor what they consider to be blasphemous speech within their countries, that is just fine. If the US wants to promote free speech above all other concerns within our borders, that is also just fine. That does not give the US the right to mandate free speech in Libya, nor does it give Egypt the right to demand that the US censor blasphemous speech in our country.

    The problem with censorship is that it is a slippery slope. Many Americans would agree that the film that triggered this is vile and serves no purpose besides inciting Muslims. Many Americans also agree that the message and actions of the Westboro Baptist Church are irredeemably repugnant. However, that does not mean that the correct course of action in either case is censorship. The Supreme Court was correct when it upheld the right of the Westboro Baptist Church to stage its protests, and it would be correct if it upheld a similar case in favor of the makers of this Film.

    Censorship by definition gives someone the power to determine what is and is not acceptable speech. I am unaware of a person or entity on this planet that I would trust to make that call. Today’s clearly unacceptable speech could be tomorrow’s tip of the iceberg if we open those flood gates.

    No, the correct answer is private, not public action. Use your own powers of free speech to condemn the actions and statements taken by those whose message you disagree with. Don’t rely on the government to shut it down for you. If the message you disagree with is truly full of falsehoods, then file a slander suit. Don’t rely on the government to determine for you what is truthful enough to be produced.

    It is certainly understandable that people who live under regimes that use censorship to not understand how the US government can simultaneously condemn the film and support the producer’s right to make it. But, if they don’t understand, the correct response is education, not capitulation. Educate the commoners in these countries on how and why we value free speech above almost all else. If they disagree and wish to continue censorship in their own countries, that’s fine. But they don’t get the right to dictate how we choose to value free speech in our country any more than we have the right to impose it on them.

  2. Great post, Liban–you covered the facts of these matters very well. Certainly, there is no right to not be offended in any conception of human rights I’ve ever seen, but just because we are free to say most anything, doesn’t mean we should.

    That said, cultural sensitivity should not become a censor. Reasoned, rational criticism of religion is difficult enough to undertake in the Christian world. Researchers of religion who dare to question the historicity of Jesus are shunned, unable to find academic work, in spite of a lack of any contemporary historical accounts corroborating the Bible’s stories of Jesus’ existence or deeds. But that pales in comparison to the Fatwā calling for the death of Salman Rushdie issued by the Ayatollah Khomeini, following the publication of Rushdie’s book, The Satanic Verses. Rushdie’s criticisms were based on historical writings, but for many, Muhammad is beyond reproach–firebombs, attacks and death threats make this plain.

    The Innocence of Muslims is ridiculous–absolutely ridiculous. But in recent years, it has not taken such blatantly disrespectful, offensive content to set off the radical element within Islam. Moderate and liberal Muslims have, to date, done little that I can see to effect the necessary social consequences on those who react in this unacceptable way. Valid criticism should invite argument, not violence–but has there really been much difference between the reactions to these two wholly different incidents?

  3. The United States should not negotiate with terrorist, especially with the civil liberties of our citizens.

    If something achievable by a ten year old with youtube and google translate is capable of setting off riots and murderous rampages half way around the world, is the ten year old to blame for the deaths that result? Is our country? One hundred thousand of these videos could be uploaded every hour of every day forever. How then should we as a nation proceed? Ban Youtube? Employ legions of censors to view every video before it hits the web? After it hits the web? After it result in riots? Or Death?

  4. Thanks for the comments guys.

    Mat, I actually agree with the majority of what you said. My intent of the article was not to suggest that the government itself should go and actively shut down offensive websites but that we Americans have the collective responsibility to reject hate speech whether it is targeted at Muslim, Blacks, Jews, or the LGBT community. The film not only portrayed Prophet Muhammad in an ugly light but also painted all Muslims as bloodthirsty monsters interested in only looting wealth, raping women, and molesting children. Honestly, this film is no different from “The Birth of a Nation” and “The Eternal Jew”. Since many across the Middle East hold the belief that this was movie was produced and sanctioned by the US government, don’t you agree that it was in the US’ best interest to denounce the film, distance itself away from it, and down right reject it as hate speech? Instead, the Obama administration is under fire for opposing free speech because of their position. Our situation and reputation in the Middle East is sensitive. The government made the right call in denouncing the film and its producers. The rest is up to us, the American public, to reject the film and show the world that the majority of Americans do not agree with the views proclaimed in this film.

    Justin, rational, reasoned criticism should never be a problem. My thought process is this: if I can’t defend my faith from criticism, then is it a faith I should believe in? If I feel insecure in my beliefs because of criticism, then I need to reevaluate my beliefs. Believe it or not, Islam has a long history critical thinking and reasoning. The Quran itself commands Muslims to think critically and appeals to reason to grab our attention. This is why Islam has historically had a rich tradition of Islamic scholars like Ibn Sina (Avicenna), Ibn Qayyim, and Ibn Rushd (Averroes) who not only fleshed out Islamic theology and legal theory but also made countless contributions to the medical field, astrology, chemistry, and so on. These same scholars also wrote countless works and treatises refuting critics of Islam. Islam has a long, intellectual history of refuting criticism in a manner that is grounded in logic and rational reasoning. Unfortunately, there are Muslims who can no longer take any type of criticism and resort to violence. It is sad to say, but the Muslims protesting and rioting were the very ones that promoted the film. Before the riots began, this movie fell beneath everyone’s radar and nobody cared. The minute the riots and violence started, the views on YouTube began to climb. Even with all that said, the fact of the matter is that those who are perpetrating violence in the name of Islam or to defend the Prophet are very few. In the case of Libya, there were an estimated 125 men that were responsible for the attacks on the consulate. That’s 125 men out of the roughly 700,000 living in the city of Benghazi. The same can be said about Egypt and Yemen. The vast majority of Muslims, Muslim leaders, and Islamic scholars have spoken out and condemned the use of violence to protest this film. To touch on your point of moderate Muslims not speaking up, I would say that we are speaking out but the world is not paying attention. Top Islamic clerics across the world, even in the conservative Saudi Arabia, have issued fatwas condemning the violence and rioting. But with the media so focused on printing these sensational headlines like Newsweek’s “Muslim Rage” piece, the truth is that there just is no attention-grabbing story in printing that the majority of Muslims reject these acts of violence. The media spent hours upon hours playing and replaying the same scenes from the violent riots but spent very little time showing the many counter protests that were happening in Libya and elsewhere where Muslims were actively protesting against using violence to promote Islam. You might find this video interesting where a well-known American Muslim scholar is speaking out against the use of violence.

    On a related note, what do you all think of this article? ( Gov. Jerry Brown of California just signed Senate Bill 661, which prohibits protests within 300 feet of a funeral. This law is designed to target Westboro Baptist Church, the same group Mat referred to in his comment. Is this also government censorship or is this an acceptable exception to the freedom of speech?

  5. Very true, Liban–the Muslim world’s long and rich history of education and critical thinking, and its contributions to science, medicine and mathematics (we owe much to those ancient scholars!) makes the modern responses to criticism even more disheartening.

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