Over the past week or so, large scale protests by Muslims in various countries have shaken the world. The protests took place over a film produced in the US by a person of Coptic-Egyptian descent, which greatly insulted the prophet Muhammad and depicts him in a very crude manner. Some of the protests have turned violent, notably with the killing of the US ambassador in Libya, when violent protesters attacked the US embassy there. Many of the protests have been aimed at the West, specifically the US, but have failed to recognize the fact that the film was produced without any US government endorsement and the film is protected by free speech — the same designation given to Holocaust Denial.
The anger that many Muslims have felt towards the film is understandable and justified. The insulting depiction of this sacred prophet is rather repugnant not only for Muslims but non-Muslims alike. However, constitutionally, the US had no right to block this film, or any film, as all people have a right to free speech. For example, famous director, Larry David, in a controversial clip in HBO’s Curb your Enthusiasm, urinated on a painting of Jesus. The clip ultimately aired without restriction, and although the result stirred controversy and anger, the clip was never censored or acted upon. In these situations, the most the US can do at a governmental level is condemn the film and distance itself from it. While such insulting films and clips, along with Genocide denial, can and should be considered hate speech, the legal line between hate speech and free of speech can get very hazy and subjective.
When it comes to the reaction of some of the Muslim protests, however, there are some things to be considered. In response to a wrong committed by someone, it’s generally not a good idea to reciprocate in retaliation. The attacking of another country’s embassy or consulate goes against the Vienna Convention’s established privileges and immunity for embassies or similar forms of representation; in all, it’s a direct affront to that nation’s sovereignty, and the killing of that country’s diplomatic representatives goes above and beyond crossing the line. While all of these acts in the Middle East were horrendous and unjustifiable, most were likely the result of radical forces, such as al-Qaeda, taking advantage of the anger and instability of the protesters. The fact that radical forces took advantage and committed these acts should be emphasized so that the proper blame can be placed on a specific group within the protesters.
It should also be noted that many of these protests are an expression of anti-US sentiment that many Muslims in the region withhold. The film just provided an opportunity for those sentiments to be expressed. Many of these sentiments are forged by the results of increasingly interventionist US foreign policies in the Middle East within the past couple decades. We can only hope that a smarter and less interventionist US foreign policy will be able to soothe some of the tensions that have been seen in the past week, and that more cultural understanding can reduce anger and confusion among both sides. In this manner, both the fools producing insulting materials and the fools prepared to storm another country’s embassy and kill will think twice before acting so recklessly.