Unintelligent, but constitutionally protected

September 25, 2012

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.

Once unmasked as a Copt, he has put his own community in greater danger than ever. That community has seen what protection it enjoyed under the presidency of Hosni Mubarak weaken in the new order: A Coptic church was bombed in Alexandria on New Year’s Day 2011, and 23 worshippers died. This is a community on very short sufferance: Bacile- Basseley, having failed to palm the fault off on the Jews, has appreciably shortened it further. Intelligent he certainly wasn’t.

Stéphane Charbonnier, publishing director of Charlie Hebdo, the weekly satirical magazine that published a series of lewd cartoons on Mohammad, argues that:

I live under French law, I don’t live under the law of the Koran … it’s plain to see that the sole subject that poses a problem is radical Islam. When we attack the Catholic right, very strongly, no-one talks about it in the newspapers. But we’re not allowed to laugh at Muslim fundamentalists?

In Charbonnier’s argument, radical Islamists are special only because they threaten random violence, as well as targeted violence against those who don’t consider them special. The first full expression of this was the reaction to The Satanic Verses, Salman Rushdie’s 1988 novel, which used verses said to be uttered by Mohammad commending the worship of female goddesses – verses later retracted by him. Western scholars accept the story; contemporary Muslim scholars usually reject it.

Rushdie, as he makes clear in his just-published memoir, Joseph Anton, bent Verses to fictional purposes only, and thought little of any offense: He saw the Koran, as all religious writing, not as revelations but as texts of their time, created by fallible humans with particular ends in view. He, from a largely secular Muslim family in India, was the first high-profile target of radical Islamism in the West. He lived behind Special Branch guard for over a decade, shuttled from house to house, the target of energetically manufactured hatred. After Rushdie, we cannot say we don’t know the costs of provocation. Was it intelligent to rack them up again?

There is, finally, the issue of what we, the media, make of the freedom we claim. The British philosopher Onora O’Neill has argued that the concept of freedom of expression and of the press, passionately proposed by radicals and liberals from the 17th century to our own day, had to be combined with accountability and a sense of responsibility or it could itself become tyrannous: “freedom of the press does not require a licence to deceive”, she writes. Where there is clear deception, or worse, clear provocation, the media also acquire a license to kill. An awesome power – but an intelligent one? The answer is certainly no.

The makers of Innocence of Muslims and the little group that put out Charlie Hebdo are testing the extremity of freedom. They live on the margins and have less to lose from giving offense than a large media group embroiled in a scandal that might hit its bottom line. Indeed, they have more to gain: Charlie Hebdo tripled its modest circulation with the Mohammad cartoons. In the case of the filmmakers, we can assume a certain measure of revenge. In the case of the magazine, the calculation of increased circulation could not have been absent (it rarely is in journalism). But the main impulse, here as in other issues, is to shock and provoke.

We know enough about our societies to understand that the margins contribute much, sometimes most, to our freedoms. In the past century, these groups have rallied from the margins and been mocked for doing so: women claiming the vote, the colonized claiming independence, minorities claiming equality and the censored claiming a voice. The filmmakers and cartoon publishers are not in line with these groups. They’re not fighting for a great cause. They’re sticking it to the radical Islamists, and watching them howl.

And yet democratic societies, if they are to be true to themselves, have little choice. What we believe in is freedom of the individual – freedom to do much that is deeply unintelligent, as well as to produce intellectual marvels. Onora O’Neill draws a distinction between powerful media corporations and the single voice of the individual, and privileges the latter: “we have good reasons for allowing individuals to express opinions even if they are invented, false, silly, irrelevant or plain crazy.” She did not, perhaps, foresee the day when a greater ability to cause mayhem would reside with the silly, false and plain crazy products of individuals and tiny groups, rather than the behemoths of the media.

But that is what is happening. We, most of all in the media, have to consider responsibility as the indispensable adjunct to freedom. But in the end, we must protect the right to free expression against those whose demand for “respect” cannot be assuaged. Little that was intelligent has been published, and nothing but evil has come of it in the short term. But having fought for centuries to achieve freedom to say what we wish, it would be dumb to give up on it. We’re stuck with liberty.

PHOTO: Bangladeshi Muslims chant slogans at a protest rally during a nationwide strike in Dhaka, September 23, 2012. The daylong strike was called by 12 Islamist groups protesting against a U.S.-made anti-Islam film and a cartoon published in a French weekly on Saturday that they say insults the Prophet Mohammad, local media reported. REUTERS/Andrew Biraj 


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WE are on a collision course with all those who do want to be held to critical evaluation. All the leaders of the West and the USA in articular should of warned that we have free speech and critical evaluations of all leaders alive or dead and we are willing to fight for it and will go for head not the foot. That is that is the religious leaders and politicians that started the riots.

Posted by Samrch | Report as abusive

I’m all in favor of free speech but I am equally in favor of personal accountability. It galls me that somebody can hide behind the protection of free speech and the world’s largest military and crank out something that assuredly will put American lives at risk, and not even have the decency to do it under their own name.

I’m willing to defend free speech. I’m not willing to defend anybody who would not be held accountable for their own actions. In the case of our foreign film makers – If only they had been on site to stand up for themselves, instead of hiding behind false names and innocent folks who were there to do some good. Would they have done the same thing if that was a consequence?

I don’t excuse anybody Muslim or otherwise who responds with violence to perceived or real insults. Clearly they are not rational beings and represent a great to society. however at the same time I won’t excuse those who knowingly put the lives of others at risk. I believe that the principle of accountability should be applied to both sides.

Posted by RynoM | Report as abusive

“… Threat to society…” thank you auto correct

Posted by RynoM | Report as abusive

We are talking about a difference in culture. Westerners believe that they are the world’s standard and that everyone else should adopt our notion of civilization. We would be wise to remember that it was only 300 years ago, a mere blink in history, that we were hanging witches and jailing blastphemers.

Posted by gordo53 | Report as abusive

Keep mocking the Koran and Muhammed until they become desensitized to it the same way Christians are when Jesus and the Bible are mocked.

Posted by USAalltheway | Report as abusive

USAallthe way has the right idea.

This can be fixed once internet trolls realize that Muslim extremists are the most perfect trollbait the world has ever seen. By harnessing the power of internet trolls the world over, we could create an international movement to blanket all of cyberspace with moronic depictions of Muhammed, make up inane stories about fake histories of Islam and otherwise poke fun at zealots and relish in their rage. They’ll be reduced to gibbering schizophrenics in weeks, with no real target for violence and no way to fight back except to thicken their skin…

Posted by spall78 | Report as abusive

Accountability? Thinking that the author of the movie is responsible for the death of the US Ambassador is like saying that Shell Oil is responsible for the Molotov cocktails.

Posted by Korne | Report as abusive

Would the editor of Charlie Hebdo have published those cartoons if he were residing in one of the Muslim countries where fatalities have occurred from the riots?…He is safe and protected in the heart of France, but what of French expats or those on diplomatic missions in Muslim world….did he not think that they may possibly pay with their lives for his provocation? The same goes for the filmmaker of Innocence of Muslims. Nakoula Basseley Nakoula has put the lives of Coptic Christians in Muslim countries in danger.

The way I see it? It’s like one fella decides to throw a stone at a tiger while he is perched safely on a tree, though there are others on the ground who are not protected from the tiger he’s provoked and he cares not what happens to them. The pen is mightier than the sword. Should this truism not be taken seriously?

Posted by feufollet | Report as abusive

heart wrenching.

Posted by Jaywalker | Report as abusive

So If the lady wears provocative clothing, she is to blame for being raped? That IS in fact what you are arguing. I think you should rethink, sir.

Posted by ArntFurunes | Report as abusive

So your stance is that is is ‘unintelligent’ to inflame the ‘sensibilities’ of lunatics, killers, and abusers?

Do you also tell abused women and children to just shut up, because THEN they’ll just all be so nice to you?

I’d rather DIE than give up my freedom of speech because a bunch of lunatics kill people because they’re stupid and violent. If they are that unmanageable they should not be living in our countries. Any person who kills another because of some fatwa should be executed. All the rioters who burn cars and buildings and throw rocks at police & firemen in Europe should be deported. PERIOD.

Posted by BunnyOlesen | Report as abusive

“I Would Rather Die Standing Than Live Kneeling”
Stephane Charbonnier
August 21, 1967 – January 7, 2015
Rueters columnist John Lloyd said that Stephane Charbonnier was stupid for openly mocking Islam. You, Mr. Lloyd, are going to have to live with that, and I am going to make sure plenty of people read your cowardly, disgraceful article. You would have made a good collaborator during the era of Vichy France.

Posted by Samuccaya777 | Report as abusive