There’s some shuffling of feet going on in Western governments, about this whole freedom of speech and the press thing that democracies are pledged to defend. And who wouldn’t shuffle, after the events of the past week, and of the past 30-plus years, in the Islamic world.
Two quite deliberate provocations were the immediate cause of the deadly riots. One, a video called the Innocence of Muslims, is so technically and dramatically bad that on first viewing it would seem to be something done in satirical vein by Sacha Baron Cohen, all false beards and ham dialogue. The other, the publication of a series of cartoons of Mohammad in the French magazine Charlie Hebdo, showed Mohammad in various nude poses. Whatever their quality, they do not just make waves – they make deaths. We can no longer pretend otherwise. Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses taught us too much.
The French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said last week that “freedom of expression must not be infringed … but is it pertinent, is it intelligent, in this context to pour oil on the fire. The answer is no.” This formulation, repeated in different ways across the governments of the democratic world, says that states will and must uphold the principle of freedom; but that freedom, once conceded, should be used with care.
The question, which he turns back in large part on the media, is: How should we define “intelligent?” What is an “intelligent” use of freedom in this context?
It certainly does not apply to what the filmmakers did. The Innocence of Muslims seems to have been made by a group of Coptic Christians living in the U.S. The Copts number several million in Egypt (the figure is hotly disputed, with official sources saying there are no more than 4 million, while Copts claim as many as 14 million). And they are like other minorities in the area: Some among them have done well in business and the professions, yet they labor under both official discrimination and popular suspicion. The main producer of the video, Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, allegedly hid his identity behind the name of Sam Bacile and claimed he was an Israeli Jew – thus shifting the blame to the most unpopular Middle Eastern minority among Muslims (and putting them at even more risk), deflecting anger away from his own community.