By Lakshmi Chaudhry and Sandip Roy
"You're going to be the next Theo van Gogh." That's what Steve Klein, an American lawyer with extensive links to Christian hate groups, told Sam Bacile, adding, "We went into this knowing this was probably going to happen."
'This' being the fury and violence over Bacile's anti-Muslim movie that has now consumed the US consulate in Libya, and thus far claimed 4 lives. But Bacile — if that indeed is his real name — is safe, in hiding somewhere in the Los Angeles area.
As his reference to Van Gogh makes clear, Klein wants to frame the incendiary movie as a blow for the freedom of expression. But is all offensive speech is the same? Do they deserve the same protection? Bacile, however, does none of the above. His movie steps across all lines and beyond the pale. And it is a valuable reminder that even in this time of knee-jerk censorship, there are certain kinds of expression that do not deserve our support.
The flag is not the Bhagvad Gita
When Aseem Trivedi was arrested for dishonouring our national symbols, everyone rightfully rallied to his side. But what if his cartoons had depicted someone peeing on on a religious text instead of the flag? The more strident free speech activists would still have supported his cause, but the issue would have been far more polarising and raised more serious questions about his intent.
There is a difference between the flag and a Bhagavad Gita or Quran or Guru Granth Sahib.
In his Firstpost essay, Shiv Vishvanathan underlined the unique nature of secular national symbols: "The Supreme Court has recognised the right of every citizen to fly the flag. When the flag is no longer the preserve of public officials, why should the constitution not be open to interpretation, laughter, a multiplicity of interpretations?"
Religion, however, is not as open to the same. For one, one community's icon does not belong equally to the rest of us -- and democratic values of tolerance and diversity includes respect for the culture and creed of others.
In India, we are overly sensitive to any form of expression that seemingly trespasses on a community's faith, be it MF Hussein's paintings or Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses. Both did not receive the protection they rightfully deserved, but the idea that religious sentiments ought to be protected is not illegitimate.
The 14-minute trailer for Bacile's movie is deliberately, outrageously offensive, made with the intent to deeply offend all Muslims. It takes their most cherished religious icon, Prophet Muhammad, and portrays him as "as a child of uncertain parentage, a buffoon, a womaniser, a homosexual, a child molester and a greedy, bloodthirsty thug." It is impossible to think of anyone -- other than atheists who would not be outraged at such a broadside on their religion.
It is a movie designed to offend not just Muslims but all people of good conscience, including the 80-member cast and crew who were duped into making it, and have now released a letter registering their strong protest. It's one thing to pee on the Constitution, but quite another to take a dump on a community's dearly held beliefs.
The thin, bright line between free speech and hate
Free speech is always messy business. What is hateful to one person maybe legitimate to another. All societies place limits of free speech, and some are far more restrictive than others. For example, while Americans have the constitutional right to burn their flag, we do not. Irrespective of geography, however, drawing that line in the sand is never easy, and inevitably leads to intense, polarising debates.
Van Gogh's film, Submission, was deliberately provocative, featuring semi-naked women with couplets from the Quran printed on their bodies kneeling in 'submission' to Allah. The anger it sparked led to his murder at the hands of a Muslim fundamentalist. In comparison, Salman Rushdie's transgressions were pitifully minor: penning a novel that critiqued religion drawing on the traditions of his own faith. Hussein's intent was even more benign in that he thought he was celebrating the beauty of Hindu goddesses, albeit not in the way some Hindus might appreciate.
While most viewed Van Gogh as a free speech martyr, not all free speech advocates agreed. "[H]e sought out his fiercest critics and provoked them into maddened fury. Cleverly he would often seek out the most extreme and ignorant opponents for his public battles, reinforcing the perception that only the extreme and ignorant opposed him. The inevitable violence of their response was grist to his mill," wrote Rohan Jayasekera in the Index of Censorship.
And yet, despite his reputation as an anti-Islamic provocateur, Van Gogh was careful to pick a sympathetic subject: the forced circumcision of Somalian women; and collaborator: Somalian feminist Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Bacile has shown no such restraint, a reason why his only supporters are members of Christian fundamentalist groups such as Klein who believes southern California is riddled with Muslim Brotherhood sleeper cells.
No speech is entirely free
There's a thin but bright line between provocation and inciting hate. Bacile deliberately steps right over it. "You have people essentially shouting 'Fire!' in a crowded theater. They know what's going to happen," notes Religion professor Steve Prothero in USA Today. Bacile not only "knew what was coming," but actively sought to make it happen. He didn't just cry 'Fire!' – he tossed a firebomb into a crowded theatre.
This was not a film about artistic expression, it's not even pretending to be low satire. It's been made with the intention to incite violence. Otherwise, Bacile would not have gone to elaborate lengths to deceive even his actors into participating in this sorry piece of work. Cindy Lee Garcia, one of the actresses in the film said she had no idea the film was about the Prophet Muhammad or Islam. The word Muhammad was dubbed over in post-production. “Now we have people dead because of a movie I was in,” she said. “It makes me sick.” The entire cast and crew have issued a statement saying they were “grossly misled” about a film they thought was called Desert Warrior which put out a casting call for “George (Lead) 40-50, Middle Eastern warrior leader, romantic, charismatic.”
No one even knows whether Sam Bacile really exists, whether he is an Israeli Jew or a Coptic Christian or someone else altogether. Klein told Businessweek that the original plan was to call the film The Innocence of Bin Laden.
“Sam had a crew of people passing out fliers around the dangerous mosques in California, trying to get these folks who love Osama Bin Laden who would come to cheer Osama Bin Laden,” Klein said. “But the movie was going to expose all the stuff that Muhammad really did, like murder and pedophilia and stuff like that.”
At its only theatrical showing in Hollywood, the film flopped badly. Klein said he saw “zero – nada, none, no people – go inside” and it left the filmmaker red-faced. But the evil that men do gets a new life on the Internet. And extremists on the other side have been happy to seize upon it for their own ends. It’s obvious the attack on the consulate was not just some spontaneous protest by infuriated Muslims. As K.P. Nayar writes in The Telegraph “spontaneous popular protesters inflamed by religious passions do not go to demonstrations armed with mortars and rocket-propelled grenades.” Nor do they keep careful tabs on exactly the right moment to use their heavy weaponry for maximum effect – when the ambassador entered the building to supervise its evacuation.
"It's extremists on both sides playing with each other," Said Sadek, a professor at the American University in Cairo, tells USA Today, "And the victims are usually the moderates and the majority of people." Nothing justifies a violent response, however hateful the speech. Hate, however, creates its own vicious circle and it needs both sides to complete it. Sam Bacile may think Islam is a "cancer" that needs to be eradicated. But his film only provides aid and comfort to the very extremists he rails against.
As of now, the film has not been banned in the United States — though YouTube and Google have blocked the trailer from viewers in the Middle East. And in a wired world, banning anything is near impossible. As Thomas Fenton writes in the Global Post: "The digital world is too diffuse, too omnipresent, to be effectively muzzled. Censorship per se is not the answer. But a little common sense, perhaps a bit of restraint and even occasionally a smidgeon of self-censorship by the Western media would not be out of place."