By Hammouda Salhi, PhD
20 September 2012
Americans enjoy freedom of speech and freedom of expression as a result of the 1st Amendment in their constitution. But, these freedoms are not absolute. You do not have the freedom to shout fire in a crowded theatre. Such freedom can endanger the safety of others and can significantly impair international peace and stability. You cannot threaten someone's life or the national security of nations. But, for better or worse, the short anti-Islam film – namely, Innocence of Muslims , is quite clearly legal under U.S. law. There have been films, books, songs, etc. expressing all sorts of hateful, disgusting, blasphemous ideas about Jews, Christians, Muslims, blacks, whites, Asians, and other faiths and races which have been made in the U.S. This is obviously the difficult part of these freedoms: One must be prepared to defend the right of even those whose ideas you might find repulsive. For example, unlike in some European countries (Germany and France, notably), there are no laws about Holocaust denial in the U.S. This being the case, the U.S. government has no standing to prohibit the film from being uploaded to YouTube or shown in cinemas. That said, this short film has never been shown in any cinemas, and with or without the uproar around it, almost certainly never will.
Therefore, it might make some sense to protest in front of the American embassy (or against the American government, in general) if the point of the protests is to express anger that U.S. law allows for this type of noxious garbage. Peaceful demonstrations in front of American embassies could have been a form of freedom of expression suppressed for long decades in the Arab world. But I don't think the protests are likely to be effective in changing those laws, but it is certainly the right forum for them. And even if the point of the protestors was merely to make their voices heard and make their displeasure felt, it seems the U.S. embassy would be the most likely place to stage such protests even if the U.S. government ultimately can't do much about the situation.
Either way, as long as the protests remain non-violent, this sort of freedom of expression should be protected and even applauded. But the wave of anti-American protests which broke out in several Muslim countries caused violent and deadly incidents that killed American and local people. Though the worst violence occurred in Egypt, Libya, Sudan and Tunisia, religious fundamentalism or extremism is a real challenge to most Arab and Muslim governments for many decades to come. But again, I do not think that such violence reflects a real anti-American sentiment, at least in Tunisia. For decades, Americans, diplomats or visitors, have been living peacefully in Tunisia. The successive 3 post-revolution governments expressed their firm commitment to strengthen and diversify U.S.-Tunisia relations through MEPI and other programs that are working to assist civil society organizations with funds and expertise, and Tunisian students with scholarships to American universities.
At universities, Tunisian students, at the undergraduate and post graduate levels, study American history, diplomatic history, social issues and other interesting topics. Many of them express their positive attitude towards these courses, they simply enjoy them. The large number of students majoring in American studies can be taken as a strong evidence of a popular and elite sentiment that is favorable to America. On the other hand, Tunisians, like many Arabs, have some reservations about some US foreign policies in the region, especially when it comes to the war in Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
But again, the same US government, particularly the Department of Justice, is trying to fight racial stereotypes surrounding the Arab and Muslim community. As for the American people, I learnt from an American friend of mine, a Lawyer who spent several months in Tunisia assisting the Tunisian Bar Association in the 2011 elections, that there has been broad condemnation of the film in the US, even by the actors in the film. The producer of the film even lied to the actors in order to get them to participate in the film and then dubbed the audio to change the content of the film.
There is also a domestic interpretation of these violent protests. The state of unrest and agitation in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya should be understood in the context of newfound freedoms suppressed by undemocratic regimes, power politics among political parties, and dire economic and social conditions. Such instability is also due to political competition and conflict in these countries. In Tunisia, for instance, there is a clear clash between the ruling Ennahda party and some religious fundamentalist groups.
Nonetheless, it strikes me that if the goal of the protests was to get the film removed from circulation, it might have been more productive to stage some sort of protest against YouTube or its parent company Google. While the video doesn't break U.S. laws, private companies are free to police their domains as they see fit. YouTube has its own "Terms of Service" and could easily have decided that the video was needlessly provocative and pulled it off its service. In some countries, where the video violates local laws, YouTube has already done exactly that. And I imagine more than one billion Muslims boycotting either YouTube or Google would have been far more likely to get the video removed than anything that has happened.
As it is what these protests have actually done is almost exactly the opposite: They have taken an obscure, poorly produced, low-budget short film that hardly anyone would have otherwise noticed and made it into a "must-see" video. This is perhaps the most worrying thing to me. There is no doubt that this video was made to provoke outrage in the Muslim world. But, aesthetically speaking, it is junk. It is not a big Hollywood production. It was not approved or financed by the government, any major corporations or anyone with any real political or cultural power. It is essentially no different than millions of other videos buried on YouTube that no one will ever watch. This was not a film that would ever play in theaters or probably even come out on DVD. No reputable corporation or individual would have ever distributed it--partially because of its despicable content, but partially because it's just so poorly made. But people with an agenda to stoke anger and enmity between the West and the Muslim world--in this case, it seems, Christian extremists--used it for their own ends. And all those protestors "took the bait," so to speak. If they would have just ignored this entirely, hardly anyone would have ever seen this video.
The fact of the matter is if I spent a month trolling through YouTube, I guarantee I could find at least a dozen more videos that are equally disgusting and obnoxious, railing against Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, whoever. All that stuff is out there. It's just what we choose to react to. I guess why this particular point bothers me is because it is evidence that the entire conversation, and hence communication and dialogue, are being controlled by extremists on both sides. Christian or Jewish extremists do something to intentionally agitate Muslims, and Islamic extremists stoke the rage that insures exactly the extreme reaction that the extremists on the other side hoped for. That can't end well. I think that the unjustified side of the protests has been motivated by extremists but also politicians and intelligence agents.
After all, the above mentioned countries are living their newly born “democracies”. During transitional periods, some mistakes may be committed and some values may not well be respected. Democracy is a learning process and moderates on both sides have to do more and do better to combat the new, unfaithful masters of communication.
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