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Anti-Islam film is hate speech, not free speech

Malicious undermining takes advantage of First Amendment rights

By Samah Assad

September 27, 2012

With heightened political tension finding a comfortable home in the Middle East, more static shot through the region earlier this month when a 14-minute anti-Islam video called “The Innocence of Muslims” first aired on Youtube. The clip triggered even more riots, protests and deaths to add on to the already strained area. Specifically, it disparages and demeans the Prophet Mohammad.

To make matters worse, Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, allegedly the California man behind the crude film has not faced any ramifications from the U.S. for igniting an international crisis. Instead, he is most likely sitting back wearing a stupid grin and watching the flames he lit pop and burst before his very eyes.

But nothing is wrong with what he did, constitutionalists argue. He has the freedom of speech. And anyone who doesn’t see this, they say, is denying the rights bestowed upon us by the First Amendment.

The freedom of speech is a right that I am gracious for every day I’m alive. As a minority and citizen of this country, I do not take for granted the opportunities I have to be able to speak out and let my voice be heard. But the First Amendment was not adopted more than two centuries ago to hand people the right to intentionally disrespect and violently disrupt the lives of others. Four American diplomats were killed in Libya due to the provoked violence.

No doubt the violence in the Middle East and other countries with substantial Muslim populations has a political subtext in which some extremists have used the video as an opportunity to attack the U.S. embassies. The unfortunate part of this was that the men who helped Libya get rid of a tyrant, Ambassador Chris Stevens and three others, were killed by extremists. However, we will be deluding ourselves if we think that the video did not play a part in the violence. It undermined not only Muslims but also the work of people such as Stevens. As death tolls continue to rise, the principle of freedom of speech should not be valued higher than the atrocities that have occurred because of a form of hate speech.

When addressing the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday, Sept. 25, President Obama said that although he condemns the “cruel and disgusting” video, the United States has important reasoning behind its protection of hate speech.

“We do so because in our society, efforts to restrict hate speech can become a tool to silence critics, or oppress minorities,” Obama explained. “We do so because given the power of faith in our lives, and the passion that religious differences can inflame, the strongest weapon against hateful speech is not repression, it is more speech — the voices of tolerance that rally against bigotry and blasphemy, and lift up the values of understanding and mutual respect.”

Not placing restrictions on hate speech has undoubtedly elevated oppressed and minority voices, but what we really need to consider is that this film is a form of hate speech that was created out of disrespect for a group of people. It can be considered to be group libel and defamation as it attacks the human dignity of an entire race and community — not just one person.

Jeremy Waldron, legal scholar and author of recently published legal theory book “The Harm in Hate Speech,” stresses regulating speech is not a good idea. However, he explains that hate speech in particular should be regulated as part of our commitment to human dignity and respect. In fact, he contends that hate speech assaults human dignity. I value the respect and dignity that each human being on this earth is entitled to the second they are born. Freedom of speech does not give us the right to shatter human worth like glass.

Although arguments are made that hate speech is a form of private expression that should be free of government controls, Waldron argues that “hate speech and defamation are actions performed in public, with a public orientation, aimed at undermining public goods.”

Nakoula’s film was clearly a public act designed to cause offense and stir up violence. It was a perfect example of an attack on the dignity of a group of people, and it is exactly the kind of “hate speech” that scholars such as Waldron have been calling out. In 14 short minutes, it purposefully asserted that Muslims do not deserve respect from society by publicly and brutally ridiculing them. It undermined their intelligence and suggested that it’s OK to mock people in this way. Consequently, the film maker twisted the knife even deeper with the worst way a Muslim can be mocked.

It is a blasphemy in Islam to depict the Prophet Mohammed in any way, let alone in a vulgar manner. As a religious Muslim, not one person can tell me that this is not the lowest blow to a follower of the religion. It is also no secret how seriously and deeply followers of Islamic faith in the Middle East, as well as all over the world, view their religion — for many, it is placed above all else in their lives. Just as any strong follower of whatever faith, they live and breathe religion. It is more than just a sensitive subject to them, and if someone plans to mock their religion, they should know that it is an attack on the dignity of human beings. However, it does not require one to believe in a religion to bestow the adherents of that religion respect as fellow humans.

Nakoula knew very well what he was doing as he went forth with producing this film for a reason — to attack and infuriate Muslims around the world. This action is not exercising the right to free speech, but it is taking advantage of it in a venomous way.

Could this not have come at a better time, too? The anniversary of 9/11 had just passed and political tension in Syria and Libya are at a sky rocket. Could this movie’s debut truly be a coincidence, especially with what the content in the movie portrays?

If that isn’t enough evidence that the film was created with a malicious intent to harm others, let’s also look at the producer’s ethics from another standpoint. According to an article in the Chicago Tribune, Cindy Lee Garcia, an actress in the film, is suing Nakoula claiming that he defamed and tricked her. According to her lawsuit, she had no idea this was a movie mocking Islam or the Prophet during filming or on set, and she was duped into believing she was taking part in a completely different type of movie.

This ignorant film maker should be reprimanded for playing a role in maliciously sparking a religious fire around the world, and what’s truly appalling is that there are people who give him an excuse for his actions by saying it is his given right to do so.

The United States is the only liberal democracy that does not have laws and codes against hate speech. It is true that one cannot control when speech causes harm and offense to another — people understand and perceive messages differently. But if offense and harm caused by hate speech fosters violence at a large scale, the question is not is it free speech, but does it look more like “fighting words” and a hate crime.