by LIBAN YOUSUF
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.