Anti Islam video: Free speech at what cost?

Washington: It's no surprise that Friday sermons in India and Pakistan will “talk” about the anti-Islamic film crafted to incite and hurt. Its decidedly mysterious antecedents will add to the anti-American fervour – especially in Pakistan -- which works as a convenient lifeline against more pressing problems the maulvis choose to ignore. The muddle around the film’s producer, promoters and financiers will bring high-resolution clarity to old conspiracy theories.

The film has caused large-scale protests in Egypt and Libya against the US, resulting in the death of an American ambassador and three other officers. The film is vile, crude and designed to outrage. It is so bad, it shouldn’t be taken seriously but that’s not how the world works.

 Anti Islam video: Free speech at what cost?

Protestors removing the US embassy board from the building: Associated Press

Enter Terry Jones, the extremist Christian minister from Florida who likes to hold “judgment day” on Islam’s tenets and burn the Quran. He told The Daily Beast in an extensive interview that he was contacted by the producer a few weeks ago to promote the film. Yesterday, he was contacted by a senior US official and requested not to do so. “I would definitely consider it,” he told Gen Martin Dempsey, chairman of the joint chiefs’ of staff.

Jones’ casual attitude may be shocking but he is asserting his right to freedom of speech – a weight-bearing pillar of American society. Repugnant as he may be in his declared and consistent quest to denigrate another religion, he won’t be arrested to restore order elsewhere, where outraged mobs and opportunistic Islamists are resorting to violence.

The film is not a flame but a forest fire in the volatile mix of the Middle East where forces unleashed by the Arab Spring are still coalescing into recognisable entities. Diplomats from all countries are struggling to understand the new alignments, the many agendas, and the old rivalries.

It appears the attack in Benghazi was a planned manoeuvre by well-armed militants who may be sympathetic to al-Qaeda because protesters generally don’t come armed with rocket-propelled grenades. Shelling from the outside went on for hours. But the film did provide a convenient cover for protests in Benghazi and Cairo.

In the hyper-connected world where a film allegedly produced with Christian and Jewish money can arouse mob passions among Muslims a continent away and take lives, requires a rethink of concepts designed and established in an earlier age when information didn’t have to be contained, it simply stayed home. The sanctity of principles and the right to freedom of speech could be maintained and enforced by governments. Today sophisticated and grounded western concepts are hurtling headlong into societies much less educated and sophisticated, where the distance between religion and politics is often zero.

The situation unfolding now in Libya, Egypt and spreading to Morocco and other parts of the Muslim world is a case in point. While the filmmakers and Jones are protected in America, their fellow Americans are not protected from the violence such deliberate and determined hate speech unleashes. And more Marines and guards are not the answer. US embassies are already fortresses and remote self-contained villages. How much further can they recede to escape mob fury from the next salvo in the propaganda wars?

Free speech absolutists want the US government to assert First Amendment rights and not compromise this most sacred principle. But they don’t explain how a government is to protect its citizens – a task more sacred. In India, where incendiary messages recently triggered a widespread movement of peoples because they feared attacks, is struggling with similar issues although more ham-handedly than one would hope.

Arguing the primacy of freedom of speech, Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic magazine wrote: “I think the only response of the US government in these cases should be the following: “A private citizen has expressed a controversial view. If you disagree with that view, please take it up with him. The only responsibility the US government has in these cases is to uphold the person’s right to free speech. Free speech is a sacred principle of our culture and civilization.” One hopes governments have a wider view of their responsibilities than simply ensuring free speech.

Besides, the First Amendment while protecting hate speech does have exceptions — incitement to riot, defamation and shouting “fire” in a crowded theater when there isn’t one. The crude anti-Islam film fits on at least two counts. It is often said, “your right to swing your arm freely ends at the other person’s nose.”

Jeremy Waldron, a legal scholar, has argued in his latest book The Harm in Hate Speech, that it might be time to regulate hate speech in America. All other developed countries have managed to walk the line between maintaining free speech and curbing hate speech and their freedom index isn’t too bad. Stirring up religious hatred against another group is taboo in many countries.

The violence in Libya and the death of four officers should at least spark a debate on how to deal with the Joneses. Is it a dignified solution that every time Jones wants to spew vitriol, a senior officer is deputed to request him to calm down? And Jones says leisurely he would think about it.

News about the film has already made its way to communities in India, Pakistan and Afghanistan despite low internet penetration. Those of us who have lived long enough know what the reaction might be. There will be few First Amendment debates defending the trashy film.

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Updated Date: Sep 14, 2012 13:21:16 IST