Freedom of speech: insults, incitement and Islam

By Graham Peebles

Graham Peebles argues that to reduce the issue of the anti-Islam film “Innocence of Muslims” to notions of freedom of speech versus censorship “is a convenient distraction fabricated in order to avoid discussing the filmmakers’ intention and the underlying causes of hurt and anger among Muslims which arise largely out of American foreign policy”.

Across the Muslim World there is outrage and hurt at the latest calculated attack on Islam, in the form of the film trailer “Innocence of Muslims. All who hold human rights and moral decency close to their heart share their indignation.

Freedom of speech is a basic human right, protected under Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which states:

  1. Everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference, and
  2. Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression.

Rights enshrined in law that are nevertheless denied to many, rights supposedly honoured in democratic countries.

Expressions of free speech that are little more than propaganda, that consciously incite hatred and spark acts of violence are rightly restricted under the very law that protects our freedom of expression. Article 20, paragraph 2 of the same covenant states that any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence shall be prohibited by law.

Innocence of Muslims”

The amateurish film with no real narrative portrays the Prophet Muhammad as a violent and lascivious fool. It is cheaply made, poorly acted and directed, and as a piece of filmmaking it is to be dismissed out of hand, but as The Guardian put it, “the really sinister thing is that all this ham-fistedness and crassness is in an important sense deliberate. It has to look like propaganda for the provocation to be effective.” The actors claim they did not know what the film was about or its purpose, and some speak of suing the producers. The BBC reports: “One actress featured in the film said she had no idea it would be used for anti-Islamic propaganda and condemned it.” Offensive dialogue that insults Islam and the Prophet Muhammad has been crudely added after filming.

The trailer was written and produced in the USA by Nakoula Basseley, an Egyptian Coptic Christian living in California, who drafted much of the script while serving a prison sentence for fraud. According to the Gawker website, it was directed “by a 65-year-old schlock director named Alan Roberts. He’s the creative vision behind soft-core porn classics like The Happy Hooker Goes Hollywood.” Whether a full film version exists is speculation; the trailer however has done its toxic, destructive work.

Basseley says his wife’s family paid for the film, but it is still unclear how it was funded or what the cost was. Whatever the amount, it is hard to justify any expense at all on a film rooted in such prejudice and hatred, which serves no purpose other than to hurt and insult Muslims throughout the world, reinforce negative stereotypes, incite violence and fuel division. The film is, as the Guardian states, “a bigoted piece of poison calculated to inflame the Muslim world … it might be risible were it not for the ugly Islamophobia which it promotes and whose effects are now being seen around the world.”

Intended fury

The film has unsurprisingly prompted widespread protests throughout the world. On 11 September in Cairo protesters scaled the walls of the American embassy, pulled down the US flag and called for the expulsion of the US ambassador to Cairo. In Libya, the US ambassador, Christopher Stevens, and three other American staff members were killed in the American embassy in what appears to have been an unrelated, pre-planned military-style attack.

Other protests directly triggered by the offensive, degrading film, and sadly resulting in many deaths, have since taken place in a number of countries with large Muslim populations, including Sudan, Tunisia, Lebanon, Yemen, Pakistan, the Philippines, Indonesia, Qatar, Afghanistan, Britain, Nigeria and Kashmir.

Free speech or incitement?

The film and the reaction to it has prompted much to be written and spoken about unrestricted free speech and the dangers of censorship. Writing in The Observer, Nick Cohen argues that “Nothing, however vile, justifies censorship. Even in the hardest of cases such as this anti-Islamic film, the old arguments against censorship remain the best.” The observation of basic human rights is the foundation for any democratic society and free speech is a fundamental requirement. Where it is absent, totalitarian control of one kind of another becomes possible, perhaps inevitable.

Freedom of expression is indeed a fundamental human right, but it does not stand alone, or above other related rights, such as human dignity and mutual respect. All need to coexist and indeed all are indivisible.

There are though many methods of control and restriction of freedoms, both crude and subtle. Is for example the manufacturing of consent, a form of sociological coercion commonplace in America and elsewhere compatible with freedom and/or democratic principles of independent thinking and participation. As Noam Chomsky says, “the anti-democratic thrust of opinion in what are called democratic societies is really ferocious, and for good reason. Because the freer the society gets, the more dangerous the great beast becomes and the more you have to be careful to cage it somehow.” The “great beast” is, of course, us – the 99 per cent.

The making and distribution of this film is not an expression of freedom of any kind; it contributes nothing of value to the political environment or social discourse and has no artistic merit. The Anna Lindh Foundation reinforced this view in a statement in which it described the film as “an inflammatory pamphlet, the distribution of which – on the anniversary of the terrorist attacks of 11 September – cannot be abridged to a manifestation of freedom of expression”.

International law, acting as a guide and aid to clarity of thinking, states there are limits to free speech. Where such expression is clearly based on racial or religious hatred and incites violence, then it is illegal and the perpetrators should be subject to prosecution. For where the law is infringed consequences follow – something Israel should be made aware of. What is crucial is the motive. If something is spoken, written, painted, drawn, filmed ,etc. with the premeditated intention of causing offence, because it is rooted in hatred of one kind or another, it is outside the law.

Freedom of expression is indeed a fundamental human right, but it does not stand alone, or above other related rights, such as human dignity and mutual respect. All need to coexist and indeed all are indivisible.

Unless the filmmakers of “Innocence of Muslims” are completely naïve or plain stupid, they would have known that producing a film in which the Prophet Muhammad is portrayed as a violent, promiscuous simpleton would inevitably cause offence and would probably result in violent demonstrations. Therefore, the film breaches international guidelines on free speech, and should be banned, its makers charged and prosecuted. Al-Jazeera quotes the filmmaker Danny Schechter, whose view on the film is clear: “It is very political from beginning to end. It’s not about free expression; it’s about propaganda. The film is incitement – it’s not information, it’s not filmmaking and it’s really intended as a technique of war-making.”

What good can possibly come from continuing to allow such a distasteful film to be circulated? It serves no purpose other than to provoke further potential violence. It enables Muslims to be marginalized and demonized again and constructs a perverse justification for continued American and Israeli intimidation, aggression and the spreading of paranoia. Allowing this film to be shown or not has little to do with censorship and/or free speech, and to reduce this issue to such notions is a convenient distraction fabricated in order to avoid discussing the filmmakers’ intention and the underlying causes of hurt and anger among Muslims which arise largely out of American foreign policy.

Simmering resentment “the safeguard of justice”

Opinion among large numbers of Muslims throughout the world towards America is overwhelmingly negative. The Pew Research Centre found in a recent survey that there remains “a widespread perception that the US acts unilaterally and does not consider the interests of other countries. In predominantly Muslim nations, American anti-terrorism efforts are still widely unpopular.” In fact, according to the Pew Centre report only 15 per cent of Muslims have confidence in President Barack Obama, approve of his foreign policies and hold favourable views of America in general. The Pew Centre states: “In a number of strategically important Muslim nations, America’s image has not improved during the Obama presidency.” In fact, it has deteriorated, as US policies throughout the region continue to cause consternation among large numbers of Muslims (and of course more widely).

American support for Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestine, which violates a host of international and indeed national laws and contravenes numerous UN resolutions, is perhaps top of the list. It is followed by the Iraq war, US involvement in Afghanistan, Libya, Syria and Yemen, long running proxy wars in Somalia, and US support for “friendly dictators”. Add to this confinement without trial, abuse and torture in Guantanamo and Bagram prisons, the burning of the Quran by US soldiers in Afghanistan and by Florida “pastor” Terry Jones, and disrespecting the dead bodies of Afghans. The list is indeed long and damning, and so it goes on.

The recent demonstrations were simply sparked by the film “Innocence of Muslims”, but the the film was not the root cause of the protests. As Shashank Joshi, Research Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, states, “we are witnessing profound anti-Americanism, dormant for much of last year, fused with religious extremism – with the controversial ‘Innocence of Muslims’ film merely a trigger”. Of course, extremists were involved and never miss an opportunity, their violent actions distorting the events, feeding prejudice and creating a convenient diversion from the issues.

US ideals of peace justifying conflict

All violence is to be condemned and the attacks that caused deaths and injuries resulting from these protests are no exception – they should not be allowed to take centre stage, and it must be stated that the vast majority of actions undertaken have been peaceful and without incident. The Anna Lindh Foundation says in relation to the protests that “the vast majority of Muslim public opinion has expressed its anger to [sic] the release of the film peacefully and individually, and the Arab governments of the region have reiterated their commitment with [sic] cultural inclusiveness while condemning the attacks to [sic] diplomatic delegations.”

For peace to envelop our world … there must be tolerance, cooperation and understanding of others, not ideological imposition – of any kind. The equitable sharing of natural resources, of knowledge, ideas and experience will create justice.

 To speak with solemnity and shock, calling for justice against the perpetrators of violence as US officials have, is expected and indeed right, albeit hypocritical. In order to create peace, it is necessary to remove the causes of conflict, in this case those causes are complex and not confined to one poorly-made and deeply offensive film. It is offensive, let us add, not just to Muslims, who are understandably enraged, but to all right-minded men and women respectful and tolerant of others’ beliefs and cultures.

American foreign policy is seen by many to be that which seeks to extend the influence and maximize the power of America, safeguard its interests at the expense of others and the natural environment, and support criminality – Israel comes to mind. Such distasteful American foreign policies go back decades. As Noam Chomsky states: “Even in the 1950s, President Eisenhower was concerned about what he called a campaign of hatred of the US in the Arab world, because of the perception on the Arab street that it supported harsh and oppressive regimes to take their oil.” A perception that has proved to be correct.

Ideologically driven, Washington’s attitude is that when all follow America’s lead on matters relating to economics, politics, religion and social affairs, peace will inevitably follow, and not until. With this doctrine in mind, America has sought to dominate the world, repeatedly making war in the name of peace.

Peace, though, is beyond ideology. For peace to envelop our world as men ad women everywhere hope, there must be tolerance, cooperation and understanding of others, not ideological imposition – of any kind. The equitable sharing of natural resources, of knowledge, ideas and experience will create justice.

Dissipating mistrust and resentment will lead to peace and a natural movement towards unity that encourages the greatest possible diversity, enriching the lives of us all.

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