The targeted killing of U.S. ambassador to Libya J. Christopher Stevens two weeks ago preceded a rise of intense violence in an already violence-ridden region. The spread of an anti-Islamic film, originally from the United States and translated into Arabic, has been pegged as the catalyst for Stevens’ death and the outbreak of violence that followed it. The Obama administration’s immediate condemnation of the film, however, was overzealous and could have dangerous implications for free speech in Middle Eastern countries striving for democracy.
Innocence of Muslims, was reportedly made by a Coptic Christian immigrant from Egypt named Nakoula Basseley Nakoula — working under the false name Sam Bacile — according to the Associated Press, although the details surrounding his identity are still hazy. The 14-minute film portrays the Islamic prophet Muhammad as a womanizer, pedophile and homosexual, because according to Nakoula, “Islam is a cancer.”
The Obama administration responded by condemning Nakoula’s film, even airing ads on Pakistani television that feature Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and President Barack Obama denouncing the video.
But to blame the events of the last couple weeks on a film is to completely ignore the real issue at hand: the failed foreign policy strategy of the United States and its allies in the Middle East. In addition to trivializing the conflict and pushing aside substantial discussion about policy, the attention given by the Obama administration to Nakoula’s embarrassing film sends the wrong message to a region already struggling with the transition to democracy. Obama has simply added fuel to the fire, in the process essentially giving anti-democratic leaders in the Middle East justification for cracking down on speech and individual liberty — concepts without which there is no hope of establishing sustainable democracy in the region.
There is no question that this poor excuse for a film epitomizes ignorance, intolerance and stupidity. Muslims — whose religion prohibits the portrayal of the prophet — are outraged, and rightly so. “We never insult any prophet — not Moses, not Jesus — so why can’t we demand that Muhammad be respected?” an Egyptian textile worker named Khaled Ali told The New York Times. This criticism is a fair one, but that does not mean that a useless amateur film should be used as a scapegoat for the uncontrolled violence taking place in the Middle East.
Despite the trend toward democratization kickstarted by the Arab Spring in late 2010, censorship still pervades in the region. Most notably, leaders and religious groups desperately seeking to maintain power have cracked down on free expression in the name of combating anti-Islamic blasphemy. In Egypt, the election of former Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi has brought improvement, but even his leadership bears some resemblance to the nation’s authoritarian past. Just last month, an Egyptian court ordered that a Christian-owned newspaper, Al–Dustour, be confiscated because of allegations of anti-Morsi content and igniting sectarian conflict.
If the United States is truly to be an exemplar of liberal democracy for the world, reactions such as the Obama administration’s this month must not happen again. Its leaders must stand up for all speech and expression, regardless of whether said speech is positive or negative, respectful or offensive. Defending the continued presence of the film on the Internet in the inevitable legal battles that will follow could ultimately speak louder than the administration’s feeble initial response.
Freedom of expression remains absolutely fundamental to a working democracy and, ultimately, to political stability. With this in mind in the future, our leaders must defend it at all costs and turn their criticisms into sustainable solutions. If this does not happen, there is much less of a hope for peace or democracy in the Middle East in our lifetimes.
Sarah Cueva is a junior majoring in political science and Middle East studies.