Rage over film blurs line between hate speech, freedom of expression
Police stand guard as demonstrators are seen next to a poster of anti-Islam Dutch lawmaker. (Photo: AP)
The riots in Libya and Egypt reportedly sparked by anger over a US-made film insulting the Prophet Muhammad that resulted in the killing of US Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens on Tuesday have led to concerns over the re-emergence of a vicious cycle of offending Islam and the violent reactions to them.
Religious authorities and intellectuals condemn and denounce violence as they point out the difference between freedom of expression and insulting sacred values and figures of billions of people.
“The Prophet would be saddened to know that three guest diplomats were killed by those who claim to be his followers in Libya,” said Imam Malik Mujahid, the chairman of the Council for a Parliament of the World's Religions, following the attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi and the killing of the ambassador along with three of his colleagues. However, he also directed attention to an “unfortunately predictable pattern in recent years. A vicious cycle of hate is perpetuated by Islamophobes who produce material insulting Islam and Muslims, followed by violence on the part of extremists.”
The unpleasant memories of similar cases, such as the Danish cartoons that offended Muslims in 2005 which led to the bombing of the Danish Embassy in Pakistan and the deaths of hundreds of people in several other riots, or the announcement of the burning of the Quran by Pastor Terry Jones in 2010 which led to violent protests in Afghanistan with casualties, have proven that acts that are considered offensive by Muslims have not been well managed and only cause further antagonism between Muslims and the West.
The violent riots in the Muslim world only serve to strengthen Islamophobia and contribute to the creation of hatred and bias toward the more than 1.5 billion Muslims around the world. The perpetrator of the attacks in Norway in 2011 which killed 69 innocent people, Anders Behring Breivik, referred to the work of American Islamophobes in his 1,500-page “manifesto,” which displays how hate speech can breed violence that only results in more violence.
“The producers of such offensive works have a common theme: to say that Islam is full of violence,” said Mustafa Akyol, the author of the book “Islam without Extremes,” adding that the “violent reaction to them only proves their argument right.” Emphasizing that “freedom of thought is not freedom of violence,” Akyol pointed to “the importance of civilized reaction to these [manifestations offending Islam].”
President Abdullah Gül, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as well as the president of the Religious Affairs Directorate, Professor Mehmet Görmez, have all condemned the attack, saying that Islamic references cannot explain such acts of violence. “Nothing can justify use of violence, no matter how provocative or shallow the film that is said to be the cause of the violence is,” added Görmez in reaction to the killing of the US ambassador.
The Vatican also issued a statement on Wednesday, saying that “unjustified offense and provocations” against Muslims have “sometimes tragic results” that “nourish tension and hatred” and unleash “unacceptable violence,” while adding that respect for “beliefs, texts, outstanding figures and symbols” of all religions is “essential” for peaceful coexistence.
The fine line between hate speech and freedom of expression becomes even more blurred in issues related to religion. Nilgün Gelişli from the Hrant Dink Foundation said “no expression of hatred should be considered freedom,” also stating that the foundation sometimes discusses where freedom of expression ends and where hate speech begins.
After strongly condemning the tragic killing of the ambassador in Libya, human rights lawyer and Today's Zaman columnist Orhan Kemal Cengiz said the film, which was made in California, where anti-Semitism is not tolerated, is “close to hate speech.” Directing attention to the “double standards in the US,” where there are strong laws against criticizing even the state of Israel while ignoring a film that openly insults Muslims, Cengiz also talked about the “terribly primitive reactions to those offenses which only help the racists.”
Another liberal intellectual, Professor Mehmet Altan, recalled previous events such as the burning of the Quran and called the course of events which led to the violent riots, first in Libya and Egypt and then in Yemen on Thursday “a provocative game” and warned against falling into a trap that would only increase polarization. “Where there is no rule of law, there is violence,” said Altan as he emphasized establishing a Western-style culture in terms of handling criticism.
As the debate over hate speech against Islam comes onto the agenda once again, the vagueness over the film “Innocence of Muslims” has since grown, according to the news agencies, as several key facts about the maker of the film, Sam Bacile, have proven to be either false or questionable. Bacile told the AP he was 56 but identified himself on his YouTube profile as 74. He also said he is a real estate developer, but does not appear in searches of California state licenses, including the Department of Real Estate.
In addition, Hollywood and California film industry groups and permit agencies said they had no records of the project under the name “Innocence of Muslims,” but a Los Angeles film permit agency later found a record of a movie filmed in Los Angeles last year under the working title “Desert Warriors.” A man who answered a phone number listed for the Vine Theater, a faded Hollywood movie house, confirmed that the film had run for at least a day, and possibly longer, several months ago, arranged by a customer known as “Sam.”
Bacile had earlier called Islam “a cancer” and said he intended the film to be a provocative political statement condemning the religion. The film was reportedly promoted by an extreme anti-Muslim Egyptian Christian campaigner in the US. Excerpts from the film dubbed into Arabic were posted on YouTube.