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).