Free Speech debate fuels rage in Muslims

The film “Innocence of Muslims” continues to stir seemingly every kind of response, from angry marches in Bangladesh to a petition to the White House from a Kansas City group.
Turkish authorities tried this week to tackle the technology, asking Google and YouTube to remove the videos related to the 14-minute film and seeking a court order to block Internet access.
From Pakistan came a call for vengeful violence. The nation’s railways minister offered a $100,000 reward for anyone who kills the man behind the film’s production.
The turmoil led President Barack Obama at the United Nations on Wednesday to condemn as “cruel and disgusting” the crude video that sparked two weeks of deadly protests, but he strongly defended the U.S. Constitution’s protection of the freedom of expression for “even views that we profoundly disagree with.”
“Taking that right away threatens the rights of all to express their own views and practice their own faith,” he warned.
In many regions, America’s First Amendment protections and values of openness are not in question, but rather there is confusion and anger in an Islamic world that increasingly sees a double standard.
Why is cross burning a crime in the United States, but not blasphemy against God’s messengers? Or in Europe, why are there laws against anti-Semitism, but offensive cartoons about Muhammad can be published?
A powerful theme binding the protests from Indonesia to Africa is the perception that the Western codes of free speech are somehow weighted against Islam — permitting the Internet video that insults the faith but placing clear limits on other hot button issues such as hate speech, workplace discrimination and even what is acceptable on prime-time network TV.
“In some extent, it’s not an issue of condemning America’s freedom of speech. It’s become an issue, in the eyes of many Muslims, over where the lines are, and why they are not protecting the feelings of Muslims,” said John Voll, associate director of the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University in Washington.
Illustrating the dilemma, soon after Obama spoke, the head of the Arab League called for the international community to criminalize blasphemy: “We don’t see any relation between freedom of expression, which aims at enriching culture and building civilization of the one hand and activities that merely offend and insult the beliefs, culture and civilization of others,” Nabil Elaraby said.
Acknowledging his comments put him squarely at odds with the Western nations, he said, “We are warning that offending religions, faiths and symbols is indeed a matter that threatens international peace and security now.”
Like many Muslim leaders, he condemned the violence that erupted throughout the Muslim world in response to the film. “While we fully reject such actions that are not justifiable in any way, we would like to ring the warning bell,” Elaraby said. “If the international community has criminalized bodily harm, it must just as well criminalize psychological and spiritual harm.”
That sentiment was echoed somewhat by Mohamed Kohia, board chairman of the Islamic Society of Greater Kansas City.
In its petition to the president, the local group is not calling for the U.S. government to limit freedom of speech, he insisted, but rather to outlaw “any action that may insult one’s religion” and leads to violence. In an interview, he differentiated between criticizing the theology of a religion and “insulting a religion with lies and vulgar language.”
Such a “red line” between criticism and insult, however, would be sure to blur between one religion/nation/believer and another. And, besides colliding with Western codes, any standards on religious expression would be difficult to enforce in the borderless world of the Web.
The group’s petition is directed at preventing a recurrence of the recent violence that left dozens dead, including the U.S. ambassador to Libya. A legal punishment for religious hate speech could be a deterrent to violence, Kohia said. “If people know the government outlaws things like the video, then they won’t do it.”
The perpetrators of the murders in Libya should be brought to justice, Kohia said. “Some hard-liners are trying to use this (video) to advance their cause. They can call themselves Muslims, but really they are going against the religion.”
Rushdy El-Ghussein, a member of board of the Islamic Society of Greater Kansas City, said people should be vigilant against those who might incite violence.
“We need to establish respect for others,” he said. “We see things going on and are not stopping them. We need to be conscious of what hurts people.”
The bounty offered by Pakistani railway official Ghulam Ahmad Bilour on the head of Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, the man who is thought to be behind the film, was condemned by the State Department as “inflammatory and inappropriate,” according to a report on the website of the British Broadcasting Corp.
Nakoula has gone into hiding and has put his home up for sale.
Pakistan was described as “truly leaderless,” by Maleeha Lodhi, a former ambassador to the United States. “By ceding space to the mob, the government actually joined the mob. These statements only reinforce how playing to the gallery has very dangerous, long-term consequences for the country,” she said.
Bilour said he recognized that it was illegal to offer an incitement to murder, but he said that if any court found him guilty, he was “ready to be hanged in the name of the Prophet Muhammad.”
Meanwhile, the Pakistani Taliban said it has taken Bilour off its hit list, while a breakaway faction of the Afghan Taliban announced its own bounty of almost $500,000 in gold.
And a religious foundation in Iran has renewed the call and $3.3 million reward for the death of Salman Rushdie, the author of “The Satanic Verses,” who has just published a book about his decade-long ordeal under the original fatwa by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. If he had been killed earlier, the group’s argument goes, the later insults to Islam would have never occurred.

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