Anti-Muslim Film: Free Speech or Hate Speech?

The thin line in the age-long tension filled relationship between the United States and the Islamic world has snapped again. The release of a film considered to be blasphemous of Islamic religion has provoked outrage among Muslims and violent protests in Islamic countries further worsening the relationship between the West and adherents of Islam worldwide. The film, Innocence of Muslims alleged to have been produced in the United States and uploaded on YouTube has turned spontaneous Muslim rage against the United States and their embassies worldwide. But this latest outrage was unexpected and caught the whole world by surprise. Coming on Tuesday September 11- on the anniversary of 9/11 when the United States was struggling to forget the disaster of the terrorist attack on the same date twelve years ago; Egypt, the volatile spring board of the Arab Spring revolution erupted in an orgy of violence. Protesters targeted the United States Embassy near Tahir Square. The protests that followed were swift, bloody and deadly. In Libya, Jihadists now suspected to be Al Qaeda and remnants of disgruntled Ghadaffi loyalists blasted through the United States Embassy in Benghazi; killing the ambassador, Chris Stevens and other embassy staffs. That attack is perhaps the most deadly in attacks on US interest since the invasion of US Embassy in Iran during the Iranian Revolution. At the last count, the violent protests have spread like wild bush fire to countries in the Middle East, Asia and Africa. The cause of the latest outrage is the film which many Muslim considered as an attack on their religion by the United States-even when the government of the United States has denied and condemned the provocative film. Innocence of Muslim alleged to have been produced by an Egyptian Coptic Christian; Nakoula Basseley Nakoula living in the United Sates has been uploaded on Youtube since July but only recently been dubbed in Arabic. In a trailer of the film that lasts a painful 13 minutes and 50 seconds, a fiery modern-day mob of bearded Muslims in turbans attacks Christians.

Then the film goes back in time to the birth of Islam in the 7th century, depicting the religion’s prophet, Muhammad, as a crazed lunatic, a sex fiend, and a bloodthirsty leader. It ends with a blood-streaked Muhammad, looking devilishly into the camera as an image of flames bursts across the screen. He waves a sword through the air, his eyes maniacal, narrowed, and angry. The film borrows the worst elements from Bollywood. According to a report in The Washington Post, the film was directed by a California real estate developer who goes by the name Sam Bacile, possibly a pseudonym. He has reportedly gone into hiding following the riots in Libya and Egypt. Actors in the film have said they were duped and didn’t know it was an anti-Muslim film. The love-hate relationship between the Muslims and those hiding under Christianity to provoke reactions like the current attacks dates backs in history. It has also stoked debates of the limit of free speech and the thin line of hate speech. In recent years, this relationship has been illustrated by the publication of Satanic Verses, the Salman Rushdie novel about a fictitious Quranic verse that led Muslim clerics in Iran to issue a fatwa, or religious ruling, calling for the death of the author. Later, Muslim leaders stoked riots in the Middle East about Danish cartoons that depicted Muhammad with a bomb in his turban. In Sudan, schoolchildren named a teddy bear “Muhammad,” and clerics saw that as an insult, calling for the children’s teacher to be executed. (She was arrested and charged with insulting Islam, but, amid international outcry, she was eventually pardoned.) This year, violent crowds took to the streets in Afghanistan to protest the burning of Qurans at the Bagram Air Base by U.S. military personnel. The U.S. said it was disposing of Qurans that Taliban prisoners had used to write messages to each other. An ill-advised means of disposal, to be sure. But the riots resulted in the senseless deaths of about 30 Afghans and six U.S. servicemen. Perhaps the most provocative act is that of the US pastor, Terry Jones and his Quran burning threat. In 2010, the eccentric US Pastor believes Islam promotes violence and Muslims wants to impose Sharia Law on the United States (a ludicrous claim). On April 28, 2012, Jones burned copies of the Quran. His action led to violent protest in Afghanistan. The pastor has also been linked with the film that has ignited the latest outrage. No doubt, this film promotes a point of view that is insulting to Muslims. But is the widespread violent reaction and killings justified? Many have also condemned the hyperbolic, emotional, and irrational response to a religious slur, spurred on by those with a political agenda to paint the West as an enemy of Islam. More importantly, the violent protest against a film that denigrates Islam has sparked global debate about whether there is a line between free speech and hate speech. In the United States the right to free speech is guaranteed in the constitution under the First Amendment. For example, in its response to film and the ensuing violence, the White House says the U.S. deplores the content of the film, but America’s free speech rights allow such films to air. Under this law, newspapers and magazines can say what they like about minority groups and religions – even false, provocative or hateful things – without legal consequence.

Therein lays the dilemma. The line between free speech and hate speech isn’t always defined. What is hateful to one person may be legitimate to another. All societies place limits of free speech, and some are far more restrictive than others. Irrespective of geography, however, drawing that line in the sand is never easy, and inevitably leads to intense, polarising debates. But this latest film that has led to the violence appears not a film about artistic expression; it’s not even pretending to be a low satire. The promoters of the film seem to have the intention to incite violence. Otherwise, Basseley would not have gone to elaborate lengths as reported to deceive even his actors into participating in work. In an interview, Cindy Lee Garcia, one of the actresses in the film said she had no idea the film was about the Prophet Muhammad or Islam. She also revealed that the word Muhammad was dubbed over in post-production. One must condemn the film as an unnecessary attempt to stoke violence in an already touchy Middle East still facing its demons. The aftermath of this latest outrage does not portend good news for those who desire a peaceful world order. It creates unnecessary tension between the two religions. It will worsen the relationship between the US and its allies in the Middle East. It will also contribute to increased America phobia, resurgence of jihadists and deepen the hate for anything America as is currently witnessed in the Islamic world. As the deadly consequences continued to play out in the Middle East, Muslim, Jewish and Christian leaders must unite to not only condemn the inciting film but also the violence– both of which can never be justified.

Written by
Bayo Olupohunda
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