The Islamist Death of Free Speech (and a Few Americans in the Process)

Once again, precisely in time for the 11th anniversary of the September 11, 2001, jihadist terror attacks against the New York City World Trade Center and the Pentagon, condemnatory comments concerning Islam in free societies have led to the endangerment and perhaps even deaths of innocents abroad.  On this occasion an amateur film produced in California has provided the spark inciting all-too fiery Muslim passions half a world, but only one internet link, away.

The film in question is titled Innocence of Muslims, a thoroughly negative cinematic treatment of Islam's prophet Muhammad produced, according to initial press reports, by a man who presented himself as an Israeli-American real estate developer named Sam Bacile.  Later research has revealed, though, that the producer is actually Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, a Coptic Egyptian-American living in California with a criminal record of bank fraud and methamphetamine manufacture.

Dr. Terry Jones has also promoted the film and stated his intention to show a 13-minute film trailer on this past September 11 to his Gainesville, Florida, church, the Dove World Outreach Center, a group that offers for sale on its website coffee mugs, t-shirts, hats, signs, and a book by Jones titled with the slogan "Islam is of the Devil."  Jones and his congregation gained international attention with his 2010 announcement  he would burn publicly the Koran, first recanted and then implemented on March 20, 2011.

Although "Bacile" posted the trailer on Youtube in July 2012, the trailer attracted little notice until an Arabic-dubbed version appeared on Youtube a week ago.  Clips from the trailer then began appearing in Egyptian television and within 48 hours of one such broadcast on the Muslim-oriented channel Al-Nas Egyptians had begun storming the American embassy in Cairo, Egypt.  There on September 11, 2012 some of them tore down the American flag in the embassy courtyard and ripped it to pieces, replacing it with the black flag emblazoned with the Islamic profession of faith (shehada) favored by Al-Qaeda and dating from the ninth-century Abbasid caliphate. 

As with Jones' previous calls to burn the Koran and the 2005 Danish Muhammad cartoons, such protests and violence have spread throughout Muslim countries.  Grenade and rocket attacks on the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that same day, for example, claimed the lives of the American ambassador Christopher Stevens and three of his State Department staff.  Other protests against the film followed in diverse locales such as the Gaza Strip, Kashmir, Tunisia, and Sudan.  Some observers like Robert Spencer of the website Jihadwatch, though, have questioned to what extent Innocence of Muslims has merely served as a pretext for various Muslim groups to engage in anti-Western agitation.  Analysis of the Benghazi consulate attack, for example, indicates that it was a well-coordinated assault by a terrorist group unrelated to the film protests

Viewing of the film trailer on Youtube clearly shows how Muslims could be offended.  In home-movie quality, English-speaking actors open the film with a modern Egyptian police officer discussing with an Egyptian Christian doctor how Muhammad had 61 wives throughout his life, 11 at one time.  The action then turns to Muslim Egyptians pillaging and killing amidst Christian Egyptian homes as the police stand aside.  The film subsequently shifts to depicting Muhammad's life in 7th century Arabia, showing a gluttonous, lustfully womanizing, and blood-bespattered, ruthless conqueror and butcher of non-Muslims.   For good measure, Muhammad is also of illegitimate birth and proclaims his enjoyment of both the "dominant" and "submissive" positions in male homosexuality.  The film, moreover, clearly denies that the Koran is of divine origin.

Students of Muhammad's biography will recognize in the trailer references to various controversial aspects of Muhammad's life.   One scene concerns Muhammad's child-marriage to Aisha, historically cited by Muslim sources as being nine-years old at the time of her marriage's consummation with a Muhammad in his mid-50s, although other Muslim accounts have ascribed older ages such as 14 to Aisha for her marriage.  Another scene treats Muhammad's supposed Koran revelation (Sura 33:4-5) ruling out the equation of adopted with biological children, thereby allowing Muhammad to marry Zaynab bint Jahsh after her divorce from Muhammad's adopted son, Zayd bin Haritha, contrary to prior pagan Arab practice.  Critics of Islam have historically contended that this "revelation" was merely a convenient excuse to justify Muhammad's desires (one critical commentary on this affair is even available in an online cartoon).  A subsequent scene deals with Muhammad's killing and plundering of the Jewish tribal treasurer Kinana bin al-Rabi before taking his widow Safiyah bint Huyayy as a war bride.  Yet another scene depicts Muhammad's followers executing one of his subjugated opponents, the female tribal chief Umm Qirfa, when the Muslims dismember her with ropes tied to opposite-pulling camels.

Muslim reaction to the confrontation with Islam presented by this otherwise eminently forgettable film has once again demonstrated how thin-skinned and volatile various adherents of the vaunted "Religion of Peace" (a moniker asserted once again by a Christian Science Monitor editorial on September 12, 2012) can be.  Compounding the harm of Muslim violence, though, has been a less than resounding defense of freedom of opinion in various quarters of free societies around the world.  The website of the Cairo American embassy, for example, infamously proclaimed on September 11, 2012, in a posting available at Jihadwatch but no longer in the original that the "Embassy of the United States in Cairo condemns the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims-as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions."  Such persons "abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others."  The embassy also made similar tweet statements, now being erased as well. 

After an outcry by Republican presidential challenger Mitt Romney and others, the Obama administration described the Cairo embassy statement as "not cleared by Washington."  Yet Secretary of State Hillary Clinton seemed to contradict her superiors at the same time, tweeting that the "U.S. deplores any intentional effort to denigrate the religious beliefs of others."  General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, meanwhile, also favored the otherwise insignificant Jones with a telephone call on September 12, 2012, urging him to withdraw his support from the film given possible security risks to American forces deployed in Afghanistan.

Private individuals such as Andrew Brown of the British Guardian newspaper have been more forthright in their calls for prohibiting Innocence of Muslims.  Completely ignoring the historical basis for at least some of the film's depictions (the "beliefs criticised are entirely imaginary" he charges), Brown denounces it as a "really nasty piece of lying propaganda" and "something which deserves to be called hate speech."  This "blasphemous" film even "offends against the central values of liberal democracy," for the policy of combating "bad speech" with "better speech" proffered by philosophers such as John Stuart Mill "presupposes an interest in truth," a "system that breaks down when confronted with determined and malevolent liars." "If jihadi videos are banned..." argues Brown, "the same should be true of this film and for the same reasons."

Not to be outdone on the other side of the pond, University of Pennsylvania religion studies professor Anthea Butler called in USA Today for the film producer's arrest for his "ludicrous and historically inaccurate scenes" designed "to incite and inflame viewers."  While this "movie is not the first to denigrate a religious figure, nor will it be the last," Butler sees a distinction between the Innocence of Muslims and, for example, The Last Temptation of Christ "protested vigorously" by Christians in that the former "indirectly and inadvertently inflamed people half a world away" with resulting American deaths.  Butler demands "consequences for putting American lives at risk."  Offering a culturally relativistic excuse for Muslim violence hostile to freedom worldwide, Butler determines that the "First Amendment right to free expression is important," yet "other countries and cultures do not have to understand or respect our right."  The Catholic bishop of Tripoli, Libya, Giovanni Martinelli, meanwhile, called upon "Western countries" to have the "courage" to prohibit "all blasphemous projects."

Such Western timidity in the face of Muslim aggression indicates that violent Muslim "heckler's vetoes" are having an effect upon traditionally recognized principles of free speech.  While religions such as Christianity must accept all manner of even celebrated criticism and condemnation (consider Piss Christ), Islam is acquiring an untouchable status off-limits from criticism, whether by the antics of "Bacile" and Jones or more respectable, thoughtful quarters.  Western involvement in Muslim-majority countries such as in the military campaigns of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan and Operation Iraqi Freedom in Iraq, meanwhile, rather than projecting freedom into these countries, is at times having precisely the opposite effect, holding the freedom of Western societies hostage to the well-being of individual citizens abroad.  The defense of freedom in the face of Islamist threats will require more brain and backbone in the future.