Henry Kissinger once famously said: “an issue ignored is a crisis ensured”; a lesson internet search-giant Google should have picked-up on in dealing with the recent issue-turned-crisis of the ‘Innocent of Muslims’ film.
When the matter first erupted and a series of violent acts broke out around the world as a result, I wrote an article saying that we – as Muslims – are collectively responsible for allowing this sleazy YouTube video to intimidate us.
The point was that by reacting violently as some of us did, we may have – unintentionally – served the purposes of the film’s dodgy producer (who is also an ex-financial fraud convict), by increasing awareness of this hateful – but yet otherwise not so widely circulated – video clip.
However, the real issue isn’t this particular film, a so-called preacher who decided to burn a copy of the Quran or even disgustingly-hateful posters hanging in front of subway commuters in New York City; the real issue (which has turned to a crisis a long time ago), is the serious global misunderstanding of Islam, and more worryingly, perhaps among – us – Muslims!
The same above-mentioned article also emphasized that Muslims of course have a right to peaceful protest and to oppose insults to our religion or its icons; which is what around 10,000 Muslims did outside Google’s London headquarters recently did as they demanded the removal of the film completely.
A fair and balanced approach
Anticipating that this recent protest might inspire fellow editors at Newsweek to run a sequel to their ill-conceived #MuslimRage special coverage; it would be great if they could adopt a more balanced and thoughtful approach, so that their reputable weekly magazine isn’t seen as merely milking the hype.
After all, journalists need to play their role by doing their job in a fair and balanced way; as such, one wonders if Newsweek – for example - covered the 2005 outrage at the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC)’s decision to air the TV version of ‘Jerry Springer – The Opera’ on BBC 2?
At the time the taxpayer-sustained BBC received some 15,000 objections and on January 8th, angry protesters gathered outside the corporation’s White City headquarters to oppose the decision to air the show which is said to contain serious blasphemous references to Jesus, questions about his sexual preferences and thousands of swear words.
The crowd chanted “What do we want? Springer banned! When do we want it? NOW!” as they burnt copies of their TV license bills in front of the building.
Coincidently, I was visiting the BBC on that day so I ended up covering the protest for the London-based newspaper I was working with at the time.
One lady, who opted not to mention her name but said she represents “all Christians in Britain”, told me: “If it was a normal matter, we wouldn’t have been angry and we would have been satisfied with simply not watching”.
When asked, a BBC spokesperson replied to me saying that the show will be aired anyway (and it did) at a late time of the evening and with plenty of pre-warning messages regarding the nature of its content.
A Question of Principal
Now there is a world of difference between the BBC’s and Google’s approaches to a somewhat similar matter.
The BBC, renowned for its fierce ‘no fear, no favor’ policy, still aired the show as they felt it didn’t conflict with their content guidelines; however, they did so with many warning messages and at a time of night when they knew that their audience would be minimal.
More importantly, they were very happy to take questions and respond to them; again living up to their reputation.
On the other hand you have Google, which only responded to individual requests to restrict access to the video in particular countries where YouTube is localized, but not to requests demanding a universal removal of any traces or copies of this particular film.
The list of countries which demanded the restriction included Saudi Arabia, a particularly important market for the company; the Kingdom is both home of the Two Holy Shrines of Islam and is officially the world’s largest YouTube videos-consuming country, with an estimated 90 million views a day.
As basis for their decline to completely remove the film, Google cited their pro-freedom of speech position and their claim that video didn’t conflict YouTube’s community guidelines, which would have results in an immediate removal (such as the case would be with pornographic material for example).
However, by simply ‘googling’ these guidelines, any web-user would find a clause which reads as follows: “We encourage free speech and defend everyone’s right to express unpopular points of view. But we do not permit hate speech (speech which attacks or demeans a group based on race or ethnic origins, religion, disability, gender, age, veteran status and sexual orientation/gender identity)”.
Based on this clause, it could be argued that the film DID contradict YouTube’s guidelines; which Google has reportedly said is a matter it investigated and didn’t find to be true.
What would have been useful is an opportunity to investigate this matter to find out who’s opinion of what could be defined as ‘hate speech’, the millions of Muslims around the world who objected this film or the few decision makers sitting at the Googleplex in California?
Of course, I would have asked this question myself; had I been allowed to.
It is almost surreal that whilst Google is promoting its stance in the West as a victory for liberty and free-speech; their Head of Communications and Public Affairs in the Middle East was issuing ultimatums to journalists at the recently-concluded Abu Dhabi Media Summit.
Indeed, my request to interview YouTube’s global head of content, Robert Kyncl, regarding the film was met with an aggressive tone and a finger pointed at me by this otherwise super-professional lady.
“No, you can talk to him (Kyncl) about anything else, but I won’t arrange the interview if are going to talk about film”, she said.
The interview never happened, neither did a promised ‘off the record’ talk occur as well.
As such, all I can say to Google is that if they are going champion freedom of expression; then they should at least be consistent.
The question regarding their YouTube community guidelines remains unanswered.
Faisal J. Abbas is the Editor-in-Chief of Al Arabiya News Channel’s English website and he can be reached at @FaisalJAbbas on Twitter. A version of this article was published in the UAE-based Gulf News on Oct. 18, 2012