The wave of global protests about the anti-Islam trailer ‘The Innocence of Muslims’ reflects the tensions, contradictions and polarizations of the world within which we live. Having watched this badly produced ‘clip,’ it dawned on me that it does not warrant the terms ‘movie’, ‘trailer’, or ‘video’ as it simply does not amount to anything artistic or creative and should have been left to obscurity. But yes, for any Muslim who happened to see it, it is undoubtedly highly offensive, deliberately inflammatory, and visually disgusting. It intentionally seeks to portray Islam as a fraud and the prophet Muhammad as a sexual predator, pedophile and bloodthirsty megalomaniac of the worst possible kind. Yet this ‘clip’ does raise a few important questions regarding the concept of freedom of speech, the notion of censorship and the broader but related issue of intercultural understanding.
The first point to be made here relates to the offending act itself. Whilst we all uphold the fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression, and whilst this is a constitutional right in many countries, most notably the USA, one cannot help thinking there has to be a way of balancing this right with a notion of individual responsibility. In other words, whilst individual citizens have the right to engage in speech and expression that may be offensive to others, somehow these same individuals need to realize that this right is not absolute and ought to be guided by a higher notion of public good and global ethics. Some would even suggest that there need to be clear legal boundaries preventing the spread of deliberately offensive materials that can have adverse outcomes for society at large. This is a delicate question but there are legal precedents for this kind of approach most notably defamation, slander and ‘Holocaust denial’, all of which are punishable by law in a number of countries. So in such situations, to simply hide behind the ‘freedom of speech’ mantra should no longer be an excuse for anyone from any faith or cultural background to deliberately engage in offending religious sentiments in a calculated and unrestrained manner. Nevertheless it may also be counterproductive, and even fruitless, to drag such polarized debates to courts, and this is where the anti-legislative and anti-censorship argument becomes rather appealing. Perhaps, what can be pursued more vigorously instead is an engagement in promoting intercultural understanding, and a more positive and tolerant image of the other, in this case Islam. This should include a more systematic educational agenda with a view of engendering a more positive attitudinal change to cultural and religious diversity more generally. This more positive agenda will need to be pursued internationally, if it is to engender sustained positive attitudinal change.
The second point relates to the excessive and unjustified violent reactions witnessed in a number of cities that sadly resulted in the loss of innocent lives in Libya, Tunisia, Pakistan and elsewhere. To protest peacefully is certainly a fundamental right cherished in democratic societies, yet to act violently was totally unwarranted and paradoxically defeated the purpose of trying to correct the inaccurate depiction of Islam in the blasphemous ‘clip’. Sadly, an enduring and deep sense of injustice and a perception that ‘Western’ governments have themselves engaged in anti-Muslim policies and practices (think the War in Iraq, the Palestinian issue and so on…), means that the demonstrators were not only protesting against this particular ‘trailer’ which most had not even watched, but were looking for any excuse to express their anger and affirm their Muslim identity which they believe has been under attack for some time. One cannot underestimate the extent to which some leaders across the Arab and Muslim world have manipulated this event, and the frustrations of the demonstrators, for domestic political gains.
Still we need to put these events in some kind of perspective: out of the 1.4 billion Muslims worldwide, only a few hundreds took to the streets in cities like Tunis and perhaps a few thousands in places like Benghazi and Islamabad. So, to label these protests as reflecting the whole of the ‘Muslim world’ is an exaggeration of considerable proportions.
Muslim ‘leaders’ domestically but also in the West should not simply react to such events by offering apologies on behalf of all Muslims, but should be more proactive in identifying these radical elements within their communities and engage them in meaningful dialogue and education programs. It is heartening to hear that some within the Muslim community are admitting that they had been remiss in the past and were planning to do more of this bridge building in the future. Otherwise, the same ugly scenes will be dominating our TV screens sooner than we would like to think.
Professor Mansouri is the Director of the Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation at Deakin University and Co-director of the Strategic Research Centre for Comparative Social Research. Copyright © 2012 Global Experts, a project of the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations.