The first amendment of the United States Constitution reads “Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press,” a concept and value that itself can be traced back to the Enlightenment, to the renaissance, and even to ancient Athens. This value has become the subject of serious debates in the upcoming annual United Nations meeting in New York, where a coalition of 57 Islamic nations is proposing to pass an anti-blasphemy law in response to an offensive and by all accounts awful movie trailer called “Innocence of Muslims” that portrayed the prophet Mohammed as a womanizer, criminal, and a buffoon. The ordinance, if passed, would oblige all member nations to criminalize the defamation of religion.
The Muslim coalition cites the apparent double standard of free speech as justification for their cause. For example, in Germany – a country that does not have the same guarantee for freedom of speech that the United States has – holocaust-denial is a criminal offense. Many members of the group petitioning for the law feel that insults to religion “pose a threat to global peace and security.” In his address to the United Nations on Wednesday, the president of Egypt and Member of the Muslim Brotherhood Mohammed Morsi said “Egypt respects freedom of expression – one that is not used to incite hatred against anyone.”
Morsi’s statement, of course, is in response to Obama’s address given the day before in which he condemned the 14-minute trailer as “crude and disgusting” but defended the values of free expression under which the film and it’s director are protected. The director of the film has received no less than two hits on him, coming from a Pakistani Cabinet Member and a wealthy Pakistani Businessman.
With the Civil War in Syria is getting worse every day and the tense relations between the World and Iran and Israel, it seems odd that a low-grade amateur hate-film is taking up so much time in the United Nations. However, a quick glance at the past decade reveals it’s merely the next turn of the screw in a pattern of censorship that has been emanating from the Middle East for quite a while. Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, the director and producer of the film under the pseudonym “Sam Bacile,” is following (less artistically) in the footsteps of Salmon Rushdie, Lars Vilks, Theo Van Gogh, Ayan Hirsi Ali, Geert Wilders, Matt Stone, and Trey Parker – all people who have been threatened, attacked, or killed for insulting Islam.
Reactionary riots in dozens of city around the globe called for the eviction of ambassadors, official apologies from the American Government, and for the video to be removed. Many even called for the beheading of Nakoula, as proclaimed in Australia as well as Pakistan. These riots, though discouraged from using violence, were encouraged by several Middle Eastern governments, and ultimately resulted in the invasion and vandalism of American embassies in Egypt and Yemen. The American Consulate in Benghazi was also attacked, resulting in the deaths of four Americans including the Libyan Ambassador Chris Stevens, though these attacks appear to have been in response to the killing of Al Qaeda’s second-in-command and not the film.
In a public debate over the decriminalization of hate-speech in Toronto in 2006, Vanity Fair editor Christopher Hitchens defended freedom of expression against religious censorship. He argued that not only does censorship remove the freedom and responsibility of autonomy and choosing for oneself what is worth reading and hearing, but that often times “the main source of hatred is also the main caller for censorship,” and that silencing those whose views are viewed as abhorrent or appalling are the first steps towards oppression. Parts of Northern Europe that are not protected by free speech clauses like our own are already feeling the effects of this: Dutch Parliament Member Geert Wilders was put on trial for hate speech and “incitement to hate and discriminate” because of his own film “Fitna” – a charge he was later acquitted of.
The whole issue is best described by the comedian Steve Hughes: “What happens if you say that and someone gets offended? Well they can be offended! When did ‘sticks and stones may break my bones’ stop being relevant? Isn’t that what you teach children for God’s sake? […] How do you make a law without offending people? How do you make an offense to offend people? Being offended is subjective… what offends me may not offend you, and you want to make laws about this?” The United Nations may be inclined to over the next week, and if passed, we may see more laws threatening or overriding freedom of expression, even here in Bellevue.
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