On the 11th anniversary of the September 11 attacks in New York and Washington, riots erupted across the Middle East in response to an obscure, poorly made film produced in the U.S. called ‘Innocence of Muslims’, depicting the Prophet Muhammad as a power-hungry warmonger, womaniser and child molester.
The film has led to an extremely contentious debate over the issue of Freedom of Speech. Freedom of Speech allows for free communication of opinions and ideas, and is protected by Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The most extreme responses in the Middle East have resulted in four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens, being killed as attackers unleashed gunfire and rocket-propelled grenades on the U.S Consulate in Benghazi, Libya. This was followed by a string of attacks on U.S. consulates and embassies across the Middle East, in addition to attacks on British, Swiss, German and Dutch buildings. In Egypt, 224 people were injured in protests, when rioters smashed windows, tore down – and in some cases set alight – American flags, replacing them with black flags bearing the Muslim declaration of faith; “There is no god but Allah.”
Disappointingly, upon seeing the damage the fanatical proponents of Islam were causing, many in the West abandoned the basic principles of Freedom of Speech. U.S. Diplomats released a statement declaring that they “firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others”. U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton did no better, stating that “the United States deplores any intentional effort to denigrate the religious beliefs of others”. Perhaps seeking to further manufacture a feeling of “offence against Islam”, Sheikh Hassan Hasrallah, the influential leader of the Muslim militant group Hezbollah, has called for Arab and Islamic governments to press for an enforceable international law that would ban “insults” towards Islam and other religions.
Those who would defend censorship allow an unwarranted degree of self-righteousness and self-pity to those who call for a ban against criticism. They also make the mistake of seeing the world’s Muslim population as a single, immature and easy to provoke entity which, when presented with anything that may “offend” their faith, turns into a violent, destructive crowd. This is demonstrably not the case, as can be seen from the hundreds of pictures of Muslims who came out onto the streets to apologise for the embassy attack, holding signs reading “Chris Stevens was a friend to all Libyans.” Furthermore, the censorships argument fails to take into view those in Libya, Egypt and Iran who have expressly stated they never wanted, and will never want to be associated with clerical violence.
Those arguing for censorship have seemingly forgotten that those they wish to shield from offense today have targeted men and women in the past. Those espousing violence in retribution to offense have surfaced many times before.
There are many examples of what happens when you pander to those who have a self-righteous demand not to be offended. In 1985, Indian novelist Salman Rushdie released a fictitious novel entitled The Satanic Verses. His work not only provoked protests across the Muslim world, but led to several death threats, with the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, issuing a fatwā forcing Rushdie to spend much of his life in hiding, and leading to the deaths of the Japanese and Italian translators of the novel. This parallels the oppressive constraint upon Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who was also forced to disappear underground following threats on her life after she produced a film standing up for the rights of women under religious oppression. Surely the right for dissenters to offer up opinions that may be contrary to consensus must be given extra protection. Not only does this provide grounds for rational debate, it also encourages people to reconsider their own opinions, forcing them to ask themselves why they know what they think they know and to challenge what they’ve always been taught.
Arguably, the beauty of free speech is that it allows for any opinion and any belief to be voiced, disagreed with, and criticized. Voltaire perfectly sums up the contentious environment free speech creates, saying that he may “disapprove of what you say, but [I] will defend to the death your right to say it.” We need to realise the beauty and preciousness of our Freedom of Speech and stop supporting those who desire to erode and destroy our right to think.
(First published in The Ripple, January 2013)