Friday, November 21, 2014

Freedom, Blasphemy, and Violence

PARIS – Violent attacks on US diplomatic outposts across North Africa and the Middle East have once again raised the question of how to respond when Americans and other Westerners engage in provocative expression that others consider blasphemous. Though the attack on the US diplomatic mission in Benghazi, in which Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three members of his staff were murdered, may well have been planned, as the State Department has maintained, the killers clearly exploited the opportunity created by outrage at an anti-Muslim film produced in the US.

There have been several episodes in recent years in which perceptions of blasphemy have led to threats of violence or actual killings, starting with the publication of Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses more than two decades ago, and including the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten’s cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. In the Netherlands, Theo Van Gogh was murdered on an Amsterdam sidewalk in retaliation for his film Submission, which criticized Islam’s treatment of women.

Even some who defended freedom of expression in those cases may be disinclined to do so now. This time, the film that triggered riots in Cairo, Benghazi, Sana, and elsewhere is so crude and inflammatory as to seem clearly intended to elicit the outrage that it produced.

Yet judgments about literary or artistic merit should not be the basis for decisions about freedom of expression. The proclivity of some elsewhere to react violently to what they consider blasphemous cannot be the criterion for imposing limits on free expression in the US, the United Kingdom, Denmark, or the Netherlands (or anywhere else).

It is important to differentiate blasphemy from hate speech. What is objectionable about hate speech, and makes it punishable by law in countries around the world, is that it is intended to incite discrimination or violence against members of a particular national, racial, ethnic, or religious group.

Even in the US, where freedom of expression is zealously protected, such incitement may be prosecuted and punished in circumstances in which violence or other unlawful behavior is imminent. By contrast, in cases of blasphemy, it is not the speaker (or the filmmaker) who is directly inciting discrimination or violence. Rather, it is those who are enraged by the expressed views who may threaten or actually engage in violence, either against the speaker, or against those, like US government officials, whom they believe have facilitated (or failed to suppress) the blasphemer’s activities.

It is, of course, impossible to be certain what will arouse such anger. At times, as seems to be the case with the video that triggered the current protests in cities across North Africa and the Middle East, a long period may elapse between the offensive material’s dissemination and an outpouring of popular rage. The rage, it seems, is not spontaneous; rather, it is an artifact of local or regional politics. This does not diminish the irresponsibility of those who gratuitously engage in such offensive behavior, but it does make clear that outrage against their actions should not be a basis for abandoning our commitment to freedom of expression.

What, then, is to be done? The only appropriate response is the one chosen by the US Embassy in Cairo, which denounced the film and said that the American government condemns those who offend others’ religious beliefs. And Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reinforced the condemnation when she called the film “disgusting and reprehensible.”

Plainly, that was not enough to deter those who sought an occasion to attack the US Consulate in Benghazi. If they had not grasped this opportunity, they would have sought another. Simply condemning a film will not mean much to those who believe that, as may be true in their own countries, a powerful government like that of the US can simply decide whether a film should be made or broadcast.

Though the statement from the US Embassy in Cairo has become the target of political criticism, it warrants praise for exemplifying American values. Contrary to the criticism, condemnation of the film is not censorship. While rejecting censorship, the US government should not renounce its authority to speak sensibly and condemn an appalling and apparently intentional provocation that produced such tragic consequences.

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    1. Commentedcaptainjohann Samuhanand

      Why there is no violence in Saudi arabia.Dubai, Oman,Quatar and other rich Muslim nations while it is the poor in Pakistan,Bangladesh,SriLanka and India who are prone to this violence. This video was online for 5 months and why this 9/11, it was resurrected? By whom? what was the purpose of creating this anger? Those poor agitating south asians I am sure have not seen the video at all.

    2. CommentedSeyed Ibrahim

      An FB Update: The bulk of the Western world supports blocking the publication of the topless pictures of Princess Kate (Middleton), out of decency to her and the Royal Family. There are hardly any voices clamoring for the ‘freedom’ to publish such photos, and those that have published them are being taken to court (A French court ordered in Royal’s favour). And I agree, such photos shouldn’t be published.

      But people need to realize that Muslims the world over respect their Prophet infinitely more than the British respect their monarchy. Just like they have their standards of decency, we have ours.Ultimate and unconditional freedom of speech does not exist in any country in the world.

    3. CommentedMichael Zanette

      As we cannot excuse or find legitimate justification for the violent outbreak(s) that has tragically taken the life of US ambassador Stevens, we must still reflect on our own actions.

      We can say that there are radicalised elements within Islam (as there are within most political and religious systems) or that mentally ill people have used bastardized Islamic rhetoric to justify their own abhorrent actions and agendas.

      We cannot, however, allow these outbreaks to dominate the discourse; especially to the point where it suffocates any potential room for dialogue to commence. We cannot choose to illegitimately shape the identities of those we do not know or understand; this is a type of injustice and it is dangerous. We cannot succumb to the banal "us versus them" dichotomy that has led to so many tragedies. Perhaps this is the more difficult (less reactionary) path, but it is one that we must strive to take.

      At the same time, as many pundits have said, we must engage in a dialogue about the relationship between Islam and democracy (of all sorts). It is (a relatively recent) Western construct to think of a distinct separation of Church and state. Throughout the world (and in the West itself) there are those who have not realized such a secularization of affairs; of two distinct spheres of influence. But perhaps there are ways to move forward that take the form of less paternalistic and humiliating policy than what we've seen in the past.

    4. CommentedKofi Jackson

      Islam is a problem but the people in these nations have to confront it and switch their religion to a more peaceful one.

    5. CommentedRobert Weissen

      In the Spring
      Fresh shoots
      Stretch out
      For Freedom,
      Dignity and

      Pope and Muslim clerics meet
      Peace and tolerance, they preach
      Democracy, a chance we must give
      To nurture those Spring shoots

      We ban racism for the hurt it brings,
      We ban deniers of the Holocaust
      to remember the Truth,
      Sometimes right to limit speech
      For the greater good.

      Perhaps time to limit
      hurtful, incendiary provocations
      and protect those green shoots
      of democracy being
      trampled under foot?

    6. CommentedVivek S

      "Simply condemning a film will not mean much to those who believe that, as may be true in their own countries, a powerful government like that of the US can simply decide whether a film should be made or broadcast."

      Its the same reason why democracy doesn't work in the middle-east. Because, they see it as Islam vs democracy. I hope that people understand better now why the middle-eastern countries oscillate between dictatorship and Islamic rule. There is no in-depth understanding of democracy. Its all Islam and application of force for narrow views. Even the dictators and middle-east allies and well-developed Muslim countries cannot speak against this. I think the US is missing a chance to speak to the world about how a citizen in the US has absolute rights that the state cannot infringe upon.

      I was shocked to see a headline in the Times of India - "US powerless to take action against anti-Islam film-maker". And, this is in the world's largest democracy, India, so you can imagine how this is taken in the Muslim world. The US state department should issue statements to at least the newspapers in India, clarifying this misconception. That a citizen's rights cannot be trampled upon by a democratic state.