As you’ve no doubt already heard, American embassies throughout the Middle East have been attacked by violent mobs in the last few days, ostensibly due to outrage over a YouTube video called “Innocence of Muslims” that lampoons the Prophet Mohammed as a blundering, deceitful fraud. At least one of the attacks, on the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya, was apparently an organized assault by Islamic militants who wanted it to seem like a spontaneous mob action. But the violence has been too widespread to explain all of it this way. At this point it’s broken out in Egypt, Yemen, Tunisia, Afghanistan, India, Lebanon, Sudan and elsewhere, and targeted not just American embassies, but European embassies, military bases, fast food restaurants, and anything with a real or perceived connection to the West.
To be clear, I’m not in any way defending the film itself, either on the grounds of historical accuracy or artistic merit. By all accounts, it’s laughably amateurish and fairly explicitly racist. The actors who took part in it have claimed they were duped, that they were told the film was a low-budget desert adventure epic with no connection to Islam or Mohammed, and that the plot was changed by dubbing new dialogue after their scenes were shot. I find this plausible.
With all that said, however, I have to admit that there’s no moral equivalence to be drawn here. The free expression of opinions, however reprehensible those opinions are, isn’t a crime against human rights. Violence is. The producers of the film (who are apparently trying to stay in the shadows) may well hold false or bigoted opinions about Islam. But if their intent was to enrage Muslims and provoke them into violence against innocent people, thereby demonstrating that Islam is a backward and violent religion… well, they’ve made their point.
The principle here is the same as with the Jyllands-Posten cartoons of Mohammed: the only way to create a truly free society is by protecting all speech acts, including offensive ones. If we argue that disrespect of people’s religion should be outlawed because it leads to violence, then we’ve rewarded the worst fanatics: we’ve taught them that they can have whatever they want, just as long as they’re willing to commit violence if they don’t get it. They can restrict others’ freedom of speech and action in any way they desire, they can expect to have their religious beliefs written into law in any way necessary to placate them. This seems like an obvious point to me, but apparently it’s not obvious to some people, like Anthea Butler, a Pennsylvania religious-studies professor (!), who argues that the filmmakers should be imprisoned. (Has it occurred to Butler that courses like hers would be next on the chopping block if Islamists had their way? There’s nothing that infuriates a fanatic more than dispassionate historical study of his religion.)
I don’t know how to break this cycle. I remain hopeful that greater democracy in the Islamic world, and the greater openness that it inevitably brings, will in time tilt the balance toward free speech and reason. But democracy is no panacea, as these very public setbacks demonstrate. If there’s anything we can do to accelerate the transition, I’m open to suggestions.
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