Thousands of angry Muslims demonstrated in front of American embassies and consulates in Egypt and Libya because of a newly released film that deliberately insulted and mockingly falsified the life of the prophet of Islam. The protests soon spread to Yemen, Tunisia, Sudan, Morocco, the Palestinian territories, Iraq, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Iran, and elsewhere. Taking advantage of the chaos outside the American consulate in Benghazi, it appears that Al-Qaeda affiliates infiltrated the protesters, then attacked and firebombed the consulate building. Clearly there was no justification whatsoever for such reprehensible acts.
Tragically, several innocent American officials including the U.S. ambassador in Libya died in the senseless violence that ensued. Experts believe that the violent attack was in response to the direct call by the head of Al-Qaeda, Ayman Al-Zawahiri, to avenge the killing of his deputy Abu Yahya Al-Libi who was killed by a U.S. drone attack last June.
Yet, every few years the world gets tired from watching the same old inflammatory scene play out again and again. From Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses in 1989 and the Danish cartoons in 2005, to the burning of the Qur’an by a nutty Florida pastor in 2010 and the release of this highly offensive movie just days ago.
According to the most credible reports, this repulsive film was written, produced, and directed by Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, an extremist anti-Muslim Egyptian-American Coptic Christian in his mid fifties. Nakoula is a felon convicted in California on bank fraud charges, for which he received a suspended 21-month sentence and was fined $790,000. According to press reports the low budget movie was filmed last year and starred sixty actors who recently released a statement stating that they were never told that the movie was about the prophet Muhammad. They also maintained that most of the offensive language was later dubbed over their images. Screened last June in a Hollywood theatre the movie was a flop that barely registered on anyone’s radar. The producer then contacted another Egyptian-American extremist Copt, Morris Sadek, 70, who for decades has led an anti-Muslim campaign in the U.S. Nakoula asked for his help in promoting and distributing the film.
According to the Associated Press Sadek then contacted his friend, Florida Pastor Terry Jones, who is infamous for his calls to publicly burn the Qur’an. Even though Jones promoted the film on his website and announced that he would screen it on the anniversary of Sept. 11 as well as conduct a mock trial against the prophet Muhammad, his announcements drew very little attention from the public or the media. By early September less than 50 people had actually viewed the film’s 14-minute trailer on YouTube.
Sadek, who has an extensive email list that included many Egyptian media outlets and journalists, then started promoting the Arabic version of the trailer on his numerous extremist websites and Facebook page. His efforts caught the interest of some Egyptian reporters who consequently covered the story extensively in the local Egyptian media. A few days later the pro-Salafi conservative satellite channel Al-Naas called for a protest in front of the American Embassy in Cairo on Sept. 11. Upon hearing this, similar groups in Libya also called for a mass demonstration on the same day in Benghazi. Meanwhile, Al-Azhar, a major seat of religious authority in the Sunni world, condemned the film but called for a calm and measured response.
Interestingly, the largest Islamic movement in both countries, the Muslim Brotherhood, was absent from the scene in Egypt as well as in Libya. But by the following day the group issued a statement of condemnation and called for a peaceful million-man march on Sept. 14. Taking notice religious scholars and groups across the Muslim world issued strong statements of condemnation and called for more peaceful protests. The Coptic Church in Cairo as well as Coptic leaders and organizations in Egypt and the U.S. strongly condemned the film and expressed grave concerns about the ramifications of Muslim-Christian relations.
In the hope of further stirring the pot, Nakoula, the producer of the vile film, duped the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal in two separate interviews as he concocted a story that he was an Israeli-American collecting Jewish money in order to produce the film. But his objective of offending Muslim sensibilities had already been accomplished. Lacking knowledge and understanding of this background, Muslim groups, scholars and followers were easily drawn into this controversy. They accused the U.S. government of condoning the vicious attacks on their religious symbols, not least because of the extent of Islamophobia in the country and anti-Muslim government-sanctioned policies promoted over the last ten years.
However, Muslim public officials, religious leaders, and opinion makers need to understand the nature and limitations of Western secular societies and their democratic traditions. But the lack of any meaningful dialogue between American policy and opinion makers on the one hand, and Muslim scholars and activists on the other, as well as the historical baggage of anti-Muslim American policy in the past decade and the mistrust that followed, make it extremely difficult to explain to the Muslims around the world that the U.S government not only has nothing to do with the production and promotion of this movie, but such incidents also run contrary to its principles and interests.
There are basically two main reasons for the lack of trust and understanding between the two sides. First, the U.S. does not seriously engage the American Muslim community or Islamic movements worldwide on political or cultural levels. Rather it deals with them, especially domestically, from the narrow prism of security concerns. Thus, in many instances the American Muslim community has been treated as a liability to politicians or civil society institutions.
Secondly, many Islamophobes and Muslim haters have taken over the public space and the media so much so that appointments or inclusion of any Muslim figure in government or other public institutions have become a struggle, sometimes with costly consequences. The Republican Party has basically become the party associated with Muslim bashers and haters, while the Democratic Party has only given lip service to inclusion while it is still afraid of being attacked by the right as being sympathetic to “terrorists.” Meanwhile, the American Muslim community is alienated and the crude stereotype of America being the enemy of Islam is cemented in the hearts and minds of Muslims worldwide.
American Muslims are thus a wasted asset. Probably more than most they understand and appreciate the value of free speech and the first amendment and could play a crucial role in acting like a bridge between America and the rest of the Islamic world provided that they feel genuinely included in the political discourse and be treated with respect.
In every incident many American public officials and pundits argue that the “irrational” reaction by thousands of Muslims around the globe “exposes” their religion’s intolerance to freedom of speech and expression. Their central argument has always been that Islam is incompatible with democratic values, with freedom of belief, speech, and expression being at the center of such values. Their objective, of course, is to give credence to the “clash of civilizations” thesis and to keep Islam and Muslims on a continuous collision course with the West.
Since the end of the Cold War, this campaign to replace communism with Islam, and the Soviets with Muslims has been relentless although initially not very successful. Regrettably the 9/11 attacks provided justification, context, and impetus for the proponents of the clash theory, who have since been exerting considerable influence over many governmental agencies and senior officials as they adopted policies, strategies and tactics that promulgated this world view. One consequence of this policy was to target all Muslim organizations and activists (even in many cases just ordinary individuals), in the U.S. and abroad, and treat them as potential threats, suspects, and enemies of the state until proven otherwise.
Undoubtedly, Muslims around the globe are extremely sensitive to deliberate depictions of highly offensive insults directed toward the prophet and holy book of Islam. Yet, for centuries hundreds of books, articles, speeches, and other materials have been produced that harshly criticized and attacked the religion, its founder, and holy texts without evoking anger, fear, or violence. On their face, these offensive expressions are not what Muslims find so objectionable. Most Muslim scholars welcome the opportunity to engage in a civilized dialogue or debate the validity of major Islamic beliefs, tenets, interpretations, or historical facts.
But what made the incidents in the last two decades different is the nature of the attacks. They were deliberate attempts to fabricate the life and history of its major figure by mocking his life and depicting him in the most offensive manner: irrational, liar, crazy, filthy, coward, killer, thief, slave-trader, philanderer, pedophile, sexually deviant, while his wives were portrayed as ignorant, prostitutes or sexually enslaved. One could hardly point to any redeeming value in such productions. But make no mistake about it; these incidents were not intended to have any. Their sole purpose was to goad and incite a Muslim response knowing that a substantial number of them will be enraged and react vehemently, some even violently.
But why does it seem that most Muslims become easily infuriated with such disgraceful attacks against their religious symbols?
Western secular societies assert that the highest value in their culture is the preservation and security of human life. They argue that this doctrine takes precedence over all other aspects in life. While within the Islamic culture, the preservation of human life is indeed sacred, it is however, preceded by the safeguarding of its belief system, chiefly among them the honor of its prophet and holy text. In other words, most Muslims believe that deliberate abuse and slander of their prophet or holy book is the highest form of violating their human rights. Nevertheless, most authentic Islamic religious authorities do not condone or justify any form of violence in expressing such legitimate anger or outrage. Clearly, in a multicultural world, maintaining peace and harmony among communities and cultures dictate that people understand and respect, but not necessarily accept, the value system of other cultures so long as they do not directly contradict with their most basic values and principles.
So when someone is keenly aware of another’s value system and what hot button issues are likely to generate widespread outrage, such deliberate acts should be called for what they actually are: the highest form of fomenting incitement and hatred.
But how could the U.S. deal with free speech and art that incite and tear apart human relations without violating its most cherished principle?
One of the limitations in the United States constitutional law to freedom of speech as protected by the First Amendment is the “fighting words” doctrine. In a 1942 famous Supreme Court case, the unanimous ruling held that “insulting or fighting words, are those that by their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace.” Applying such a principle can easily lead to the balance needed between the inviolability of the principle of freedom of speech and the narrow exception where such speech results in a serious massive injury that would rupture harmony and peace within communities, cultures, and countries.
Yet what about the practice of freedom of speech in the West?
Western governments and civil society institutions assert that freedom of speech, expression, and association is the bedrock of maintaining their democratic character. Whenever someone deliberately sets out to inflame the sensitivities of Muslims toward their prophet or holy book, freedom of speech is invoked in order to defend the cause of the uproar and dismiss its effects as an irrational response. Granted though that under no circumstance should violence be an acceptable answer to any attack no mater how wicked or appalling.
But on a more basic level, does the West really believe in free speech or does it apply a double standard when it comes to Muslim sensibilities? Let’s check the record.
In the private sector, when Google was asked to remove the highly inflammatory YouTube video, it immediately and correctly cited its long established policy of supporting freedom of speech, including all despised speech (though it reluctantly agreed to suspend it in Egypt and Libya.) But as the Jewish Press reported on August 1, Google had no problem removing 1,710 videos and closing their affiliated accounts because “A substantial number of those videos concerned Holocaust denial and defense of Holocaust deniers.” According to the newspaper report, Google “closed the user’s account within 24 hours” of receiving the complaint by a group that monitors anti-Semitism in Australia.
In July 2011, Facebook was pressured by Israeli authorities to close the accounts of many Palestinian activists. Israel complained that the activists were coordinating their plans to travel to Israel and cause disruptions. In reality, the activists were trying to make a strong political statement online. Needless to say, the Israeli government could have easily rescinded any visas it might have issued to these activists or prevented any person from entering the country had they actually traveled. There was no call for incitement or violence by the activists to justify closing their accounts.
People in the U.S. may not be aware of these incidents where hate or disfavored speech was taken down. But many people in the Muslim world are aware of such interventions that run contrary to stated principles. Plausibly, they wonder, if foreigners such as the Attorney General of Israel or an Australian monitoring group can get Google or Facebook to shut down videos or close accounts, how can one argue that the President or the Secretary of State cannot make similar requests? They also recall that in 2009 Secretary Clinton intervened and prevailed over the executives of Facebook and Twitter on behalf of the activists of the so-called Green movement in Iran. This is not an argument to advocate closing down accounts or removing videos but simply to illustrate the hypocrisy and double standard practiced by public officials and business conglomerates when dealing with Muslim concerns.
Furthermore, many European countries enacted laws in the past three decades that criminalize any speech or writings that question the official accounts of the Holocaust. In 1996 French philosopher Roger Garaudy published his book, The Founding Myths of Modern Israel. Critics charged that his book contained Holocaust denial and consequently the French government indicted him, and shortly thereafter, the courts banned any further publication of the book. In 1998 Garaudy was convicted, sentenced to a suspended jail sentence of several years, and fined forty thousand dollars.
In 2005, English writer David Irving was apprehended in Austria on a 1989 arrest warrant of being a Holocaust denier. He was subsequently convicted of “trivializing, grossly playing down, and denying the Holocaust,” and sentenced to three years imprisonment.
Moreover, British Muslim Ahmed Faraz was sentenced in Dec. 2011 to three years in prison in London after being convicted of “disseminating a number of books deemed to be terrorist publications.” The publication Faraz was convicted of distributing in his bookstore was the 1964 book, Milestones, written by the late Egyptian author Sayyed Qutb.
But the U.S. government’s recent record is far more alarming. In fact, since 9/11 draconian sentences have been handed down on the account of what traditionally was considered pure first amendment activities.
In 2004, two TV satellite operators, Javed Iqbal (a New York resident of over 25 years), and Saleh Elahwal, were charged by federal prosecutors with “providing material support to a foreign terrorist organization” by broadcasting to U.S. customers Hizbollah’s satellite channel, Al-Manar. The FBI also searched Iqbal’s business and home “on suspicion of maintaining satellite dishes.” In 2008, Iqbal was convicted and sentenced to 69 months.
In many criminal prosecutions since 9/11 Muslims have been convicted and sentenced to as much as life in prison for expressing their political opinions, giving fatwas (religious opinions), feeding children, providing educational materials, translating documents, uploading videos on websites, or singing in a band.
In one case involving American-born Tarek Mehanna, Yale Professor Andrew F. March wrote in the New York Times, “As a political scientist specializing in Islamic law and war, I frequently read, store, share and translate texts and videos by jihadi groups. As a political philosopher, I debate the ethics of killing. As a citizen, I express views, thoughts and emotions about killing to other citizens. As a human being, I sometimes feel joy (I am ashamed to admit) at the suffering of some humans and anger at the suffering of others.” He further wrote, “At Mr. Mehanna’s trial, I saw how those same actions can constitute federal crimes, because Mr. Mehanna’s conviction was based largely on things he said, wrote and translated.”
What these examples and many others illustrate is that the protection of the constitutional freedoms of speech, expression, and association are used selectively in the U.S. on the basis of political judgments. American officials, public intellectuals, and opinion makers revel in invoking the first amendment as an inviolable principle when Islam or its sacred symbols are attacked, and then find rationalizations and loopholes when American Muslims engage in objectionable free speech activities. However, this double standard is not lost on the majority of people in the Muslim world and across the globe.
The criteria to judge whether a society values and respects free speech is when the most vulnerable members of society, those who might be the targets of the majority, can feel safe and free to say what they think when they want on any subject without fear, intimidation or negative repercussions. In other words, to know whether America today honors free speech one must ask one hundred random American Muslim activists that question to get the real answer.
In a nutshell, America shall only have credibility as a champion and guardian of freedom of speech and expression when the thoughts, speeches, writings, fatwas, translations, poetry, and web browsing of Mehanna and his colleagues are not criminalized. Only when they are set free can America reclaim back the mantle.
Esam Al-Amin can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org