A few weeks ago, a video called “Innocence of Muslims” was distributed, depicting the prophet Muhammad as a homosexual, womanizing child molester. It was intended to inflame a large part of the world and spoil what little tolerance and understanding there existed between West and East. The violent backlash is obviously unjustifiable, nor is it rational to blame Western governments for the video itself. But many Muslims do point out that the West is responsible for allowing such an inflammatory film to be made, posted, and distributed freely.
Surely, one might say, we cannot violate our precious 1st Amendment to appease people who do not understand freedom. In general, this has been the position of government officials. The US embassy in Cairo implicitly protected the film behind freedom of expression: “We firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others.”
Conservatives went further: “Sooner or later, we in the modern world have to say to those who are living in a different way, ‘Look, we stand for freedom,’” championed Newt Gingrich, who saw the video as an opportunity “to teach the Muslim world about freedom.”
President Obama seemed to take heed of this advice, using his annual address to the UN General Assembly to lecture the Muslim world about our values:
Americans have fought and died around the globe to protect the right of all people to express their views — even views that we profoundly disagree with. We do so not because we support hateful speech, but because our Founders understood that without such protections, the capacity of each individual to express their own views and practice their own faith may be threatened.
Therefore, for the sake of freedom, we cannot ban the video, however inflammatory it may be. Given that, this headline from Reuters in 2008 seems curious: “A New York City man pleaded guilty on Tuesday to providing material support to a foreign terrorist organization by broadcasting Hezbollah television channel Al Manar to U.S. customers, federal prosecutors said.”
The State Department had previously declared Al Manar to be a terrorist group, saying that “It’s not a question of freedom of speech, it’s a question of incitement of violence.” So does the station promote terrorism?
Anne Marie Baylouny, Associate Professor of National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School, conducted a careful analysis of its content. She concluded that the “terrorist” label is ridiculous, as “most topics broadcast have little to do with Hezbollah, its resistance, Shi’a religious teaching, or the fight against Israel.” She sums up her findings as follows:
A substantial amount of al-Manar’s current shows and their substance do not fit the common idea of al-Manar as affirming violence, religious preaching or particularism. They deal with human-interest concerns, especially women, youth, and community relations, many of which would be topical for Westerners as well.
Javed Iqbal, whose small satellite programming company also provided his customers with numerous other stations, faced up to 15 years in prison for the broadcast. However, as Gingrich said, “we stand for freedom,” so we let him off with just 5.
The State Department did not cite any evidence of Iqbal’s programming services causing any violence, leaving the “incitement of violence” claim quite dubious. In fact, “Incitement of violence” does not seem to concern the State Department. Here is a headline from the New York Times last year:
The man accused of the killing spree in Norway was deeply influenced by a small group of American bloggers and writers who have warned for years about the threat from Islam, lacing his 1,500-page manifesto with quotations from them.
Anders Breivik, the anti-Muslim extremist who killed 77 last year, named numerous Islamophobes as inspirations for his acts, such as America’s own Robert Spencer of the Jihad Watch website, whom he cited 64 times. According to Foreign Policy, Breivik drew his “intellectual inspiration” from “the work of British-Swiss ‘historian’ Bat Ye’or,” who has warned of the coming “Eurabia.” While xenophobes like them should be allowed to speak their mind freely, if western governments were really concerned about “incitement of violence” they would not hesitate to crack down on people like this rather than Mr. Iqbal.
While Robert Spencer is given full 1st Amendment Rights, others are not as worthy. In the Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling in Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project the HLP, a human rights group, sought to teach the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) how to resolve disputes peacefully using international law. Unfortunately, this was illegal under a provision of the PATRIOT Act because the PKK is listed as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO), and so any “expert advice or assistance” constitutes “material support.” The Court upheld the law 6-3, over objections from several human rights groups and civil liberties advocates, such as the American Civil Liberties Union, which said of it: “Today’s decision is disappointing and inconsistent with our First Amendment position. The government should not be in the business of criminalizing speech meant to promote peace and human rights.”
As the name of the case implies, Eric Holder, Obama’s Attorney General, brought the case to the Court. In addition, it was argued by Solicitor General Elena Kagan, who became the newest Obama appointee on the Supreme Court just months later.
Further casting doubt on Obama’s support for free speech, it appears that his administration sought a more extreme decision than the one which was ultimately handed down. Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the majority, opined that the government’s position did not sufficiently acknowledge the First Amendment, even if the provision was acceptable given the government’s interest in fighting terrorism. Thus, while the Court thought the First Amendment was compatible with the law, the Administration didn’t think it worthy of consideration.
A just society should clearly understand the distinction between defending the right to free expression and defending the views expressed. Holocaust denial, for example, is illegal in 12 European countries, and some people have been imprisoned under these laws. Should we protect them to legitimize their opinions? No, their opinions are so outlandish that any reasonable person would crack up by the time they finished their case. But when we persecute them, we make them look like courageous dissidents. In the United States, with our civil libertarian tradition, we do not do that, so Holocaust denial is a marginal issue. In Europe, the arrest of Holocaust deniers like David Irving and Horst Mahler have received great publicity, and as a result Holocaust skepticism gets more attention than it warrants.
Such restrictions always depend on the notion that some institution or another is the arbiter of absolute truth, be it the state, an organized religion, the intellectual establishment, etc. In a truly democratic society, there should be no such edicts from on high, because it is dangerous to give that power to any institution. History proves that doing so is always a mistake, as the lives of Socrates, Galileo, and others testify. Even if we can be practically certain that the views we protect are wrong, as with Holocaust denial, doing so ensures that we do not heroize their adherents.
So what does this mean for the recent backlash against Innocence of Muslims? This means we should not silence Islamophobes like Robert Spencer or the creators of “Innocence of Muslims” who preach hate against Muslims, just as we should not repress those who whose ideas offend Christians and Jews. Less controversially, we should also take media stations off the terrorist list and let human rights groups engage in peaceful dialogue with our enemies.
There are some who would strongly disagree with allowing this kind of freedom. One could argue that by letting filth stay up on YouTube, we have precipitated the violent backlash. But that is quite oversimplified; we did not convert a billion Muslims into raving anti-American suicide bombers. Only a small fraction of Muslims protested the video. As CNN pointed out, in Indonesia, the largest Muslim country, only several hundred protested the video, compared with the 50,000 who bought tickets to a Lady Gaga concert and “in Egypt, a nation of over 80 million, about 2,000 people protested.”
The example held up of how the video provoked “Muslim Rage” was the attack that killed our Libyan ambassador, which is now acknowledged by our Director of National Intelligence to have been “deliberate and organized,” thus linking it to the video is completely absurd.
Plenty of violence was connected to the video. True, but this does not justify a crackdown on freedom of speech. The FBI reported this year that there were 160 anti-Muslim hate crimes in 2010, up significantly from previous years. The Southern Poverty Law Center, a leading watchdog of hate groups, noted that this came at a time of “incendiary rhetoric of Islam-bashing politicians and activists especially over the so-called ‘Ground Zero Mosque.’”
With such extremism on the rise, should we stop building mosques or silence far right politicians? I don’t think so.
A few months ago, YouTube closed the account of a user within 24 hours of receiving a report from the Online Hate Prevention Institute (OHPI). The user had uploaded 1,710 videos in a single day, 87% of which clearly contained hate speech. Clearly, the user had serious issues, but this was not the best way to deal with the videos.
Compare this to YouTube’s policy toward “Innocence of Muslims.” While it did ban the video in several Muslim countries, it has remained up in the US since July 2nd. The creators’ freedom of opinions remains unrestricted, but not because anyone endorses them. We have protected their opinions by leaving the video up, and expressed what we think of them by adding to the enormous dislike bar.
One person’s hate speech might be another’s personal beliefs, and that can cause violent conflict. We cannot change that. But what we can do is end our double standards and show more tolerance toward beliefs that we despise. Maybe then the Muslim world will take us seriously when we talk about “freedom” and “our Founders.”