Burning Freedom of Speech at the Stake: The Case of the Movie “Innocence of Muslims”

Riots and protests broke out in Libya, Egypt, Pakistan, Lebanon, Israel, Australia, France, Sudan, Germany, Britain, and several other countries. American embassies were attacked in Cairo, Britain, and Germany, and the American ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens, was killed along with 3 other Americans in what is now believed to have been an Al-Qaeda attack. All of this violence came as a result of a movie titled “Innocence of Muslims”, written and produced by Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, which displays Mohammed as a sex-crazed warlord. While the anger of religious Muslims is justifiable, one wonders if freedom of speech is being used as an excuse for Islamophobia, or vice versa. Where should we set the limits of freedom of speech, and should we do so at all?

Actor depicting Mohammad as a warlord drenched in his victims' blood

Actor depicting Mohammad as a warlord drenched in his victims’ blood

Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.” The following Article though continues by dictating that: “everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” As such, it is beyond doubt that any opinion, both positive and negative, is allowed to be expressed, whether it pleases others or not. International law justifies the production of such a movie, and while the producer Nakoula has been arrested due to violations of his probation, several of these violations are directly linked to the movie. World leaders raced to offer apologies for the movie, while the violent riots and killings raged throughout the world. Bounties were placed on Nakoula’s head, and multiple calls to his execution were sent out. A simple movie deemed offensive and “Islamophobic”, punished by murder, incitement to murder, vandalism, rioting, and rampant violence. Whether the movie was offensive or not is not an issue to be discussed, since it remains a private decision of Muslims. Humans have every right to be hurt and offended when a symbol dear to them is being mocked. What has to be evaluated is whether the movie itself was indeed islamophobic as scores of public figures and media outlets claimed, and whether the reactions were justified, and as many shockingly said, expected. First of all, let us define Islamophobia in order to better identify its presence, or absence, in the movie. The Collins English Dictionary defines Islamophobia as “hatred or fear of Muslims or of their politics or culture.” Does “Innocence of Muslims” actually display hatred or fear of Muslims? The answer is a clear and simple no. The first part of the movie starts by showing a group of bearded men attacking Christians, with policemen ignoring the incident. One has but to be slightly acquainted with Egyptian news to know that incidents of attack on Coptic Christians by fundamentalist Muslims are quite common, such as the Nag Hammadi massacre in 2010 in which Muslim gunmen shot at Christians leaving the midnight Christmas Mass, resulting in the death of 8 Copts. Neither the movie nor this example claim to represent all Muslims, but we have a valid case showing that attacks as the one depicted in “Innocence of Muslims” do in fact occur. To call this scene islamophobic is to deny the reality of these attacks, and a cheap attempt to criminalize pointing them out. The second part of the movie depicts Mohammed, who is believed to be a prophet in Islam, having multiple sexual relations and murdering people

Nakoula Basseley leaving the sheriff's office.

Nakoula Basseley leaving the sheriff’s office.

. Whether this depiction is true or not is of no importance here, because it does not attack the entire group of Muslims with defaming words and discriminatory prejudices, but rather attacks one person, Mohammed. As a result, we see that neither the section displaying present day Muslims, nor the one showing Mohammed, are islamophobic.
Having ruled the movie as a negative opinion of Mohammed rather than an islamophobic video attacking and discriminating against Muslims, we now ask an even more important question: were the reactions to this movie understandable? Basing ourselves again on Article 19 of the International Declaration of Human Rights, every human is entitled to his opinion, and has the right to express it through the media. This directly concludes that trying to censor “Innocence of Muslims” or prosecute its producer for his opinion of Mohammed are direct violations of International Law. Nobody should be forced to agree with every religion, or to think positively of its prophets and key figures. If someone disagrees with Islam, he or she has every right to say so, and describe Mohammed as they wish. The same should be applied to any and every religion, political party, group, belief, etc… There is an inconsistent logic when the world reacts with shock and horror to the burning of “heretics” at the stake in previous ages, but “expects” and “understands” why such violent reactions would occur that end up burning freedom of speech at the stake for not complying to the beliefs of certain groups. In fact, in October 2011, a man burned a Bible in Saint Peter’s Square, in Vatican, the headquarters of the Catholic Church, during a Mass celebrated by the Pope himself. He was unharmed by any of the faithful present, the Vatican police, or the Pope’s bodyguards, and no call to his murder was heard from the Pope, bishops, or priests. This case does not show all Christians to be peaceful people, neither do the “Innocence of Muslims” riots show that Muslims are violent. To claim so would be an over-generalization and an example of islamophobia. On the other hand, this example is being used to demonstrate that disagreement with religions and desecration of their buildings of worship, books, and figures are common and attain all religions indiscriminately. No apology was made for burning the Bible, because it is a man’s opinion to which he is entitled, whether Christians like it or not. Similarly, no apology should have been made for the movie “Innocence of Muslims”, because it is also another man’s opinion, to which he is equally entitled.
As horrifying as the violent reaction to the movie was, the most alerting aspect of this case would be the calls to criminalize blasphemy of Islam, as well as criticism of Mohammed. If such demands were ever met, the Western world would become filled with sad cases similar to that of Rimsha, the Pakistani girl accused of blaspheming by tearing pages from the Qur’an. Separation of church and state, or in this case “mosque” and state, should also include personal opinion. Opinions about history, certain central figures, and beliefs should be protected from punishment by religions, as much as international law would have them protected from state punishment.
We conclude that since the movie “Innocence of Muslims” was nothing more than a negative opinion towards certain historical figures, rather than Muslims as a group, it can’t be deemed islamophobic, nor have its producer prosecuted as such. Humans, by international law, have the right and freedom to follow a certain religion, but they should in no way impose it upon others, nor punish them for having different opinions towards it. Freedom of speech entitles everyone to an opinion, and the right to express it. The case of the movie “Innocence of Muslims” was not that of Islamophobia, but rather that of certain Muslims, world leaders, clerics, and other people burning both Nakoula and freedom of speech at the stake, having been accused of blasphemy and heresy towards Islam.