Monday, September 17, 2012

Free Speech: Questions for Interfaith

By Misha Davies
IFC Communications Intern

Last week the world watched as a wave of protests swept across several countries in response to an anti-Islamic film trailer that was released on YouTube. Entitled “Innocence of Muslims,” the trailer depicts Muhammed and the birth of Islam in an untruthful, malicious manner. Seen by many as a form of hate speech that instigated violence, debates ensued over the role and protection of free speech.

Expression Free of Violence

Hillary Clinton comments on the video and violence, 09/13/12

Hillary Clinton openly stated to the world that she felt the film was “disgusting and reprehensible,” but she also protected its right to exist:

Now I know it can be hard for some people to understand why the United States cannot or does not just prevent these kinds of reprehensible videos from ever seeing the light of day….[Our] country does have a long tradition of free expression, which is enshrined in our Constitution and our law. And we do not stop individual citizens from expressing their views, no matter how distasteful they may be.

There are, of course, different views around the world of the outer limits of free speech and free expression. But there should be no debate about the simple proposition that violence in response to speech is not acceptable.

She continued to emphasize the role of leaders in government, civil society and religion in condemning the violence. And there are many reports of Muslim clerics from Somalia, Saudi Arabia, and even the Philippines who have called for their citizens to protest peacefully. But the fact remains that people are angry over the film’s content and existence.

Protecting Hate Speech for the Common Good?

While Clinton was very diplomatic, both in her words and defense of our constitutional rights, many have claimed that the film should be considered “hate speech,” and therefore be excluded from the protection of free expression. However, “hate speech” is protected under the First Amendment. The ACLU has an interesting perspective on hate speech:

[I]f only popular ideas were protected, we wouldn't need a First Amendment.…If we do not come to the defense of the free speech rights of the most unpopular among us, even if their views are antithetical to the very freedom the First Amendment stands for, then no one's liberty will be secure. 

Censoring so-called hate speech also runs counter to the long-term interests of the most frequent victims of hate: racial, ethnic, religious and sexual minorities. We should not give the government the power to decide which opinions are hateful, for history has taught us that government is more apt to use this power to prosecute minorities than to protect them.

As stated by the ACLU, it is important to protect hate speech, as crazy as that might sound. With regards to religion and hate speech, some countries have enacted blasphemy laws to stop such denigration of religions or religious groups. But it has been shown that, in fact, these laws are many times used against religious minorities, sometimes jailing individuals for simply stating that s/he does not believe in the precepts of the majority religion. Because of these abuses, the United Nations no longer supports blasphemy laws, instead protecting human rights over the rights of a religious idea.

Implications for Interfaith

The InterFaith Conference (IFC) was created to “promote dialogue, understanding and a sense of community among persons of diverse faiths and to work cooperatively for social and economic justice in metropolitan Washington.”

What do freedom of speech and denigration of a religious group have to do with interfaith? With the goals of IFCMW in mind let’s consider “Innocence of Muslims.” Is a film rife with inaccuracies and blatant defamatory portrayals conducive to any of the above goals of interfaith?

Instead of promoting a sense of community among people of diverse faiths and nations, it has succeeded in fostering anger and hate. Its historical inaccuracies of Islam and Muhammed do not contribute to better understanding of Islam or its practitioners. And its producers, seemingly aware of the ensuing response, not only used the film to denigrate Islam, but went a step further by implicating and associating two other (minority) religious groups: Jews and Coptic Christians. This is not only misrepresentative, but has made the individuals of these groups potential targets for retaliation.

As members of an interfaith community there will be times when we come across ideas or speech that we feel are insulting or denigrating to our personal beliefs, just as “Innocence of Muslims” is to Muslims and non-Muslims around the world.

As members of an interfaith community, I have two questions for you:

How should we respond to speech that denigrates religious groups or our own beliefs? And in what way can we take turmoil, such as this, and turn it around to foster open and honest dialogue that produces cooperation among diverse peoples?

Photo by theloushe / Flickr

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the 'thought provoking' article and question. Should we respond to opposing beliefs and behavior with fear or love? 'Conflict' is caused by having different goals, so 'resolution' comes from mutual understanding, respect, and sometimes a good 'a**-kicking'! JFD