“What is freedom of expression? Without freedom to offend, it ceases to exist.”
That quotation is the brainchild of noted author Salman Rushdie, a man who is well acquainted with the sort of outrage that has arisen recently in several predominantly Islamic nations. In 1988 Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran pronounced a death sentence on Rushdie for writing the book The Satanic Verses, which Khomeini and many other Muslims considered blasphemous. This kind of extreme violent reaction to any perceived slight towards Islam is nothing new. In fact, it has become as predictable as the tides.
Rushdie poked the bear and managed to survive. Many others have not been so lucky. Some casualties of Islamic anger weren’t even guilty of the imagined crime of blasphemy, and had simply been in the wrong place at the wrong time. One of the most recent examples of this is J. Christopher Stevens, the US Ambassador to Libya, who was murdered this past September eleventh when a group of Libyans raided the US embassy during a riot. It seems that the Libyans who killed him were quick to forget that not even a year had passed since Ambassador Stevens was an active proponent for deposing Muammar Gadhafi, and helped free them from his brutal dictatorship.
And just what is the affront to the Islamic faith that lies at the epicentre of all this recent barbarism? This time it is nothing nearly as elegant as Rushdie’s prose. These current violent protests are the spawn of a crudely written, and even more crudely produced, movie featured on YouTube. Yes, a mere internet video, with production values the like you would see in a clip on Funniest Home Videos, though this movie carries with it not a trace of humour. The YouTube video depicts the prophet Muhammad as a clumsy womanizer, a child molester and basically just the kind of guy you wouldn’t want as your prophet.
Many of the actors in the movie allege that they had no idea what they were starring in, and that the bigoted man who produced the film tricked them, which leads me to believe that these actors must be as dumb as the movie itself.
The video is spiteful towards Islam, of that there is no question, and it is moronic to the point that it isn’t even watchable. From its inception it’s likely that the movie was destined to only be viewed by a few hundred bigots. That is, of course, until people from Egypt to Pakistan started rioting, and ended up giving the video more media attention than it ever could have dreamed of garnering on its own.
The question has arisen of whether or not the video incites religious hatred. In a recent letter to the editor featured in the Winnipeg Free Press, the video was compared to a barrage of anti-Semitic posters that were recently plastered all over Winnipeg, denigrating the mayor and other prominent members of the Jewish community. We were quick to promise prosecution for those who launched such a hateful campaign against Jews, the letter writer stated, so why not the same for the slanderous video about Muhammad?
But there is an important distinction between the video and the posters. These posters perpetuated defamatory vitriol against specific members of the community, and even represented the potential for violence against the offended parties. The movie, however insulting, did not represent a potential for violence against the offended party. In fact, it is the offended party who have proven to be the violent ones. Why was the video not simply ignored and allowed to play out its short lifespan among the few fools who would find some sort of perverse pleasure by watching it, people who doubtlessly held bigoted views towards Muslims long before the movie was made? Is it so difficult to simply turn the other cheek? We teach our children that old adage about sticks and stones, why is that not relevant to people of all ages, races and religions?
The video is hateful, and indeed it has incited hatred. Not hatred against Muslims though, but rather by some members of the Islamic community. The video itself, while offensive, is entirely harmless. What is not so harmless in my opinion is how sensitive some members of the Islamic community are, some who want even non-Muslims to abide by their edicts, and how easily some are spurred to violent outrage at the slightest perceived offence to their religion.
If this violent reaction from some followers of the Islamic faith were an isolated incident, perhaps we could simply blame the awful video for being inflammatory. But whether it is a piece of legitimate literature like Rushdie’s book or merely a harmless cartoon like South Park, if you offend Islam, you can expect that there will be some in the Islamic community who call for your head. It has been suggested by some that we need to find a balance between freedom of expression against sensitivity towards religious beliefs, but we cannot afford to make that kind of concession to this kind of bullying.
What really needs to happen in my opinion is that those radical Muslims, who would resort to violence, need to balance their outrage against the rest of the western world’s freedom of expression.