The murder of the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three aides on September 11th and the attempted take-over of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo blamed on a trailer for an anti-Muslim film, Innocence of Muslims, which was released on YouTube. Produced by an Egyptian Copt, the trailer for the film was originally released in English in July 2012 and in Arabic on September 4th 2012. Within a week of release of the Arabic version, which received a lot of press coverage in the Arab world,1 protests, riots and attacks against Western embassies and schools took place across the Arab and Muslim world, contributing to at least 28 deaths as of September 20, 2012.2
In the U.S. and throughout Europe many are wondering why there has been such a strong response to the amateur film. Some blame pent-up anger. While others claim that the film is just an excuse to carry-out already-planned protests. Whichever the reason, many are worried about the anti-Western backlash that is taking place in many of the Arab spring countries and beyond.
Newly elected leaders in Egypt and Libya denounced the film, but urged their citizens to respond peacefully. The violent protestors do not represent the silent majority, whom has not killed innocent people in response. This news analysis will compare and contrast the reasons behind and the responses to the Anti-Muslim film.
Responses by the Muslim World
There are many articles that outline why Innocence of Muslims is offensive. One BBC article notes:
Depicting the Prophet Muhammad in any way already defies Islamic belief, let alone satirising him. His wife Khadija and his earliest companions are also revered in their own right in Islam, and so mocking these individuals is also considered serious blasphemy.3
The founding principle of Islam is that the Koran is the direct word of God, revealed to Muhammad in order that he impart it to humankind. Depicting Khadija as planning to concoct a holy book out of the Old and New Testament defies an intrinsic Islamic belief.
Any negative depiction of Mohammad and his family is offensive and the film Innocence of Muslims portrays and damning image of not only the prophet, but of religious followers as well. Pundits have differing opinions though as to the impact of this cartoon on the current wave of violence.
Differing Views of the Primacy of Free Speech over Community
Most Muslims have not reacted violently to the film. One reason that some protested is a desire for the filmmaker to be punished. A New York Times article explains that some Muslims value community rights over individual rights. In this context, it means that the rights of the Muslim community trump the right of an individual to trample upon the community using hate speech:
Where Americans prize individual choice, Egyptians put a greater emphasis on the rights of communities, families and religious groups. On the third day of increasingly violent protests outside the American Embassy, many demonstrators said their main demands were directed at Mr. Morsi, insisting that he needed to be firmer with the United States if it failed to punish the filmmakers.4
Beyond a different perspective on the rights to free speech, some Muslims view this film an cultural imperialism. Lebanon’s Grand Mufti Mohammad Rashid Qabbani states:
The United States of America, one of the strongest nations in the world that is trying to extend its influence in the entire world, cannot be unaware of the repercussions of the production of this film or its impact on religion and humanity in the world.. Hence, it would not be acceptable for the U.S. to evade its responsibilities toward the release of this film, holding accountable those standing behind this odious act, and to ensure the non-recurrence of such abuses.5
Mufti Qabbani wants the film to be removed from Youtube. The fact that the U.S. government allowed the film to remain on Youtube is reprehensible in his eyes.
Anger Against the U.S.
Others feel that the violence is not actually a response to the film, but instead a display of anger against U.S. policies. In an Al Jazeera editorial,6 Mark LeVine, professor of Middle Eastern history at UC Irvine, explains to readers that Arabs have real grievances with American policy in the Middle East. LeVine writes:
Yet Muslims in Egypt, Libya and around the world equally look at American actions, from sanctions against and then an invasion of Iraq that killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and sent the country back to the Stone Age, to unflinching support for Israel and all the Arab authoritarian regimes (secular and royal alike) and drone strikes that always seem to kill unintended civilians “by mistake”, and wonder with equal bewilderment how “we” can be so barbaric and uncivilised.7
LeVine notes that today’s grievances are compounded by support for Middle East dictatorships by the West that has taken place over the last 50 years. The human rights abuses did not end with the Arab Spring and, unfortunately are still rampant throughout the Arab World. LeVine does end on a positive note highlighting the progress toward democracy that has taken place over the last two years. He believes that both the Arab world and the West have a lot of soul searching they will need to do to move forward.8
A BBC article concurs and claims that the response just reflects general discontent in the Arab world that is being harnessed by political leaders: “Disillusionment, lack of opportunity and anger at the establishment can cause protests in any context.”9 The political nature of the violence is highlighted in an Economist article as well:
It is certainly odd, for example, that the latest film suddenly began attracting attention in the run-up to September 11th, an anniversary almost as politically charged in the Muslim world as it is in the West. It was energetically publicised (albeit in caustic terms) by two Salafist (hardline Islamist) television channels.10
The article notes that someone benefits from the violence, though the beneficiary of the current violence is not yet known.
Others believe the violence not only has nothing to do with the trailer, but that it was planned before the trailer was widely known. USA Today reported that the attack on the U.S. Embassy in Egypt was planned before the Egyptian media reported on the YouTube video. Gamaa Islamiyya, an Egyptian terrorist group, planned those attacks to call for the U.S. release of the Egyptian Sheikh responsible for the first World Trade Center bombing.11 Violence by Salafiis has been on the rise in general throughout the region, but support for their actions by the general public is mixed as the Salafiis have not won all of the Parliamentary seats in any of the recent Arab Spring elections.12
Response by the West: Debates on the Limitation of Free Speech
Throughout Europe and the U.S., many are debating whether this film should be removed from YouTube because it has incited so much violence. The film was removed from Youtube viewers in Afghanistan, Egypt and Libya.13 The Obama administration requested that YouTube review the video. The YouTube spokesperson responded that the video “is clearly within our guidelines and so will stay on YouTube.”14 Clearly the request demonstrates that the U.S. government is thinking about the limitations of free speech, though it is letting corporations decide what is permissible.
In France, a recent cartoon based on the Innocence of Muslims film was published in a Parisian Weekly. The French government has supported the weekly’s right to publish the cartoon and has not given authorization for demonstrations to be held by a French Muslim group. France’ Foreign Minister reaffirmed France’s support of freedom of expression and stated that he will let the courts decide if the weekly has gone too far. German’s Foreign Minister has also called on Germans to act responsibly and not enflame the situation anymore. Both France and Germany are on high alert for attacks against their embassies in the Muslim world.15
Jillian York, director of International Freedom of Expression, Electronic Frontier Foundation cautions against limiting the freedom of expression, she believes that this is a “slippery slope:”
When speech leads to violence, even indirectly, it becomes all too tempting to suggest that self-censorship is a smart idea. We live in a globalised world, where what someone says in New York matters in Cairo and vice versa, making it easy to suggest an extra layer of caution and sensitivity toward embattled minority groups. Nevertheless, such suggestions create a slippery slope toward greater censorship – one day the request might be to avoid insulting a prophet, the next it might be to avoid insulting a dictator.16
For some this issue is not just about the freedom of expression, but about the power of social media. Jane Kinninmont, senior research fellow, Chatham House writes:
This is not just about freedom of speech, but the realities of technology. Even in authoritarian countries censorship is growing harder to enforce. And although self-censorship is actually already taking place – artists, writers and comedians in the West are often more careful what they say about Islam than about Christianity (though sometimes for bad reasons, like fear) – this doesn’t rule out the possibility of a minority view being blown out of all proportion.17
The riots and the protests will eventually subside. Globalization has made the world smaller and, as explained by Jililan York, speech is no longer local. It can impact anyone anywhere in the world. York believes that the people have the right to free speech in the West and should not fear using it lest it offends someone in another country. In the West, the right to freedom of expression is valued as one of the most important human rights.
Unfortunately hate speech can be found in almost every country of the world and the Internet will only make that hate speech more accessible. Nearly every American election is filled with negative campaign ads. It is a shame that media in most countries focus on negative stories, but that is what “sells.” In the end, every person needs to decide how he or she will react to those stories. Hopefully they will just turn off the television or switch Internet sites and lead by example.
1 “How did obscure hate film spur global wrath?.” Al Jazeera. September 13, 2012.
2 “France increases embassy security after magazine publishes cartoons insulting prophet Muhammad.” Washington Post. September 19, 2012.
3 “Anti-Islam film protests escalate.” BBC. September 12, 2012.
4 Kirkpatrick, David and Cooper, Helene and Landler, Mark. “Egypt, Hearing From Obama, Moves to Heal Rift From Protests.” The New York Times. September 13, 2012.
5 “Lebanon’s religious leaders slam anti-Islam film.” Daily Star. September 13, 2012.
6 LeVine, Mark. “Blowback of the ugliest kind: The lessons no one will learn from Benghazi.” Al Jazeera. September 13, 2012.
9 “Anti-Islam film protests escalate.” BBC. September 12, 2012.
10 “Why they won’t calm down.” The Economist. September 15, 2012.
11 Goodman, Allan. “Report: Riots Actually About Release of Blind Sheik.” Commentary. September 12, 2012.
12 Caryl, Christian. “The Salafi Moment.” Foreign Policy. September 13, 2012.
13 “How did obscure hate film spur global wrath?.” Al Jazeera. September 13, 2012.
14 Nakamura, David. “White House asked YouTube to review anti-Muslim film.” Washington Post. September 14, 2012.
15 “France increases embassy security after magazine publishes cartoons insulting prophet Muhammad.” Washington Post. September 19, 2012.
16 “Viewpoints: Anti-Islam film and self-censorship.” BBC. September 20, 2012.