In the latest outburst of Muslim rage at offences to Islam’s prophet, the actions of some protesters exceeded acceptable limits and should be condemned. In fact, controlling anger is one of the teachings of the prophet they defend.
Attacking embassies and killing diplomatic staff, or anyone for that matter, in the course of a protest is never justifiable. Why should eight South Africans lose their lives in Afghanistan over a video, offensive to Islam?
The problem lies in the fact that, unlike in other cases where there is clear legal recourse and relief, the Muslim faithful have no tribunal in which to address their grievance: the insult and denigration of the most sacred personality of their faith.
As we know, this isn’t the first time such an issue has exploded onto the street. The Muslim religion forbids any depiction of the Prophet Muhammad, even a positive one. Syrian-American filmmaker Moustapha Akkad could not find an audience for his epic Mohammad, Messenger of God, because protests succeeded in shutting down screenings across the world. (Akkad and his daughter were, in fact, later killed by a suicide bomber in Jordan in 2005.)
The response by those who cannot fathom the offence is just as predictable. They feel that freedom of speech trumps the rights of religious people not to have their beliefs defamed. The argument is as fallacious as it is old. There are no absolutes when it comes to freedom of speech: Holocaust denial and hate speech are two examples of the legitimate limitations that can be placed upon it.
There is a difference between freedom of speech and freedom to insult. Every day thousands of articles are published around the world criticising Islam and its teachings, even talking about the prophet and his life. Yet the spirit of criticism is sorely lacking in the Islamic world. It should be encouraged, if it does not infringe on anyone else’s rights. In Western liberal democracies, the concept of harm is not properly defined, though insult to religion is condemned by more than 45 resolutions by international agencies including the UN.
There are also those who say religion, arguably the way of life of most people in the world, does not deserve special protection. Why, then, is it not okay to say something racist or anti-Semitic?
Innocence of Muslims is not a critical movie. It was an amateurish attempt at satire, depicting Islam’s prophet as, among other things, a homosexual, a womaniser and a child molester. It is not critical of the ideas Muhammad offered to mankind, but attacks his personality in a way Muslims find unacceptable.
Questions remain, however, about whether this is merely an insult to Islam or part of a bigger purpose. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton condemned the film, calling it disgusting and reprehensible. She suggested it was intended to denigrate Islam and provoke outrage. Yet, in the same speech, Clinton said that even if it were possible to prevent the film’s release, the US had a long tradition of free expression and that citizens may express their views, no matter how distasteful.
Here is a contradiction. If the film was designed to provoke rage, a purpose it has achieved, there must be a political mastermind behind it. I believe the filmmakers knew the consequences and did it for two reasons, the first of which was to test the readiness of Muslims for a possible war in the Middle East.
Second, it is election time in the US. President Barack Obama is portrayed by the Mitt Romney camp as a friendly to the Muslim world, and they can make political currency of this incident, as in “we told you so about these people”. But Obama could also use these incidents to score his own political points. More broadly, al-Qaeda seems already to be exploiting the outrage and the resultant violence: it began, after all, on the anniversary of 9/11.
Ultimately, the filmmakers’ motive is irrelevant. What will remain is a reminder of the public anger that results every time such an incident happens. Innocent lives are lost when thousands of well-meaning but ignorant worshippers go on the rampage. Preventing the loss of these innocent lives is more important, surely, than the right to say what you like in a movie script?
It’s high time a law was passed around the world prohibiting any kind of defamation or insult to religion — otherwise we are going to witness a repeat of this kind of grim news — again and again and again.