Blaming film hinders free speech rights

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.

Yiwen Fu | Daily Trojan

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, AlDustour, 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.

8 replies
  1. Benjamin
    Benjamin says:

    The bottom line is that films like this are protected forms of expression in this country, regardless of anyone’s personal opinion on the matter. The violent response by much of the Arab world remains unjustified, and one could certainly make the argument that the anti-American sentiment we’re seeing is as much an attack on America’s liberties, including freedom of speech and expression, as it is a response to the film itself. In any event, American Muslims, and groups like CAIR (Counsel on American Islamic Relations) should focus greater attention on the reasons behind anti-Muslim sentiment (most notably Islamic terrorism)… rather than attempting to foster fragile peace by demonizing Americans who are genuinely disturbed by a pattern of behaviour associated with Muslims from around the world. Americans and others have legitimate concerns about what some refer to as Muslim “extremists” and others might consider Muslim “purists”. Perhaps the question isn’t whether the film justifies the violence (which is certainly doesn’t)… but whether the violence justifies the film.

    Also, I have to wonder why everyone (especially the media and America’s left) is so quick to condemn this film as outrageous and despicable, while simultaneously turning out in droves to see the play “The Book of Mormon”, lauding it as brilliant and engaging. The irony is compelling, especially considering both represent artistic expressions on the topic of religion and faith. Why is one horrible and unacceptable, while the other is wonderful and funny?

  2. AN
    AN says:

    Jet, Please wake up, even the WH and his talking heads (Jay Carney) have admitted this was a terrorist attack. The administration was caught with their pants down and unprepared. To add insult to injury they buy ads on Pakistani TV as mentioned by Trojan Student above.

    Sarah, well written article indeed. But I do have to agree with Will. Unfortunately some Muslims do denigrate other religions. India had a well known Muslim artist, MF Hussein, who routinely painted pictures of Hindu goddesses in the nude in the name of artistic license. This would have been ok in the name of free speech if he had used the same artistic license to depict muslim figures in the same light – but he did not or should I say dared not?

  3. TrojanStudent
    TrojanStudent says:

    This is an outstanding article, the fact that the Obama Administration has not only blamed the attacks on the video but have PURCHASED public service announcements in Pakistan apologizing for the video and free speech in our country is shameful and embarrassing. The administration is avoiding questions about the security of the consulate on and before 9/11 this year, it is simply unacceptable. Furthermore, the fact that President Obama is skipping his daily intelligence briefings is irresponsible, the administration is now claiming this a terrorist attack on American soil and the fact that it took them over a week to admit that is shameful. We should never be apologizing for our freedom of speech.

    The author is absolutely correct that the policies of the Obama Administration are failing, he cant even decide if Egypt is an ally or not. He goes into NYC today to do a fluffy interview with the view but he doesn’t have time to go to the UN and meet with world leaders? What is wrong with this picture? By not meeting with the Prime Minister of Israel this week during his visit to the US and referring to his concerns as “noise” is a sure way to not only ruin the relationship with that country but to bring on attacks geared towards America due to the ignorance and naiveté of our President and his administration.

    He is too busy campaigning to have even addressed the nation from the oval office about these attacks and clear up any misconceptions that his administration who is clearly having a hard time communicating has put out. The thing that is most upsetting is the fact that the media is too busy trying to get him re-elected and attacking Mitt Romney instead of focusing on the real issues that are facing our nations. Americans are being killed and peoples lives are in danger. I don’t know about all of you but I think that focusing on the source of these terrorist attacks is more important than blaming the death of Ambassador Stevens on a video and then moving on.

  4. Jett Rucker
    Jett Rucker says:

    Ambassador Stevens was NOT IN the consulate when it was attacked – he WENT THERE during the attack.

    Stevens died of SMOKE INHALATION while destroying secret documents (doing which was his purpose in going to the consulate in the first place). The possibility that he and his aides started the fire accidentally or deliberately to prevent the discovery and dissemination of the secrets should not be overlooked.

    How is that a “targeted killing?”

    • Ras
      Ras says:

      Of course it is targeted when a mob of dumb cavemen decide to attack the US Embassy. The fact Ambassador Stevens went to his people’s aid – walking into danger is more a testament to him as a hero – not to the ugly mob not aiming at US targets. Has political correctness rotted out your entire brain?

  5. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    This statement is false: “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.”

    • TrojanStudent
      TrojanStudent says:

      That statement is not false. The attacks in Libya were a display of terrorism, the Obama Administration (finally) has come to admit that.

      …its okay though I like to watch NBC too when I want to ignore the real problems that are going on with the world and our country…

  6. Will
    Will says:

    I like the overall direction of this article, but the author is clearly uninformed and quite naive on the subject. The line she quotes from a random Egyptian “We never insult any prophet — not Moses, not Jesus — so why can’t we demand that Muhammad be respected?” and goes on to call a fair point is actually on the contrary a complete and utter lie that would be uncovered from just a few minutes of basic research. Publications throughout the Arab and Muslim world on a daily basis publish hate speech, including illustrations and cartoons, against Jews and Christians that would put Nazi propaganda depicting Jews as rats to shame. There are numerous watchdog organizations that observe and track these types of publications in the Muslim world. See this Anti-Defamation League page that shows the protrayal of Jews in the Arab media for just one example:
    More examples can be found here:

    I would suggest the author does more research into this subject before taking such a statement at face value since this hits the heart of the problem- these protesters are not mad at someone for hate speech, they are mad that the hate speech was directed at THEIR prophet. If such speech is directed at Jews, or Christians, or Bahais, or any other group, then it is fine in their books. The author has completely missed this essential point. The concept of free speech is not the issue to these people- they have never known or understood free speech. All they know is that the speech that they don’t like shouldn’t be allowed, period.

    I agree with the author’s idea that our leadership should not put the blame on the film, but rather vigorously defend the right to free speech, including hate speech. However, how she makes the connection to the new leadership in the Arab world suppressing their people is somewhat of a mystery. Leaders like Morsi in Egypt are not censoring the people, but rather adding fuel to the fire and manufacturing outrage to solidify support and give the protesters the justification that they demand. Our problem in these countries is not that the new leaders are suppressing free speech, but rather that the free speech that is being allowed consists of ugly and radical ideas. We witnessed the so-called Arab Spring, and now we witness the more accurately named Arab Winter. The Muslim world is still hundreds of years behind the rest of the world, and we would be best to recognize this and protect ourselves

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