Protests over the YouTube video Innocence of Muslims continue around the world, and the violence could get worse following the publication of cartoons ridiculing the Prophet Muhammad in a French magazine. But as much of the Muslim world appears to be going up in flames, the real threat to Western values may be right here at home.
American authorities questioned Nakoula Basseley Nakoula — a.k.a. Sam Bacile, the man believed to have produced the film — on Saturday in relation to possible parole violations. Fortunately, not much can be done to prosecute him thanks to the First Amendment's free speech protections. This did not, however, stop the White House from asking Google to take the movie off its popular video sharing site. (Google refused to censor it in the United States, but has done so in some Muslim countries.)
Calls for further restrictions on our right to express ourselves freely have also been coming from religious and academic figures. Speaking on CTV News Channel over the weekend, Alaa Elsayed — imam and director of religious affairs at ISNA Canada — advocated actions that Westerners should find far more offensive than a low-budget YouTube video.
"We would suggest highly to look at the root cause [of] this issue. We would say the government may have to step in and this may be difficult to do so, but the laws to protect the freedom of speech … you may have to change or hold people accountable for such actions," said Elsayed. "That person should be brought to justice."
Without saying it in so many words, Elsayed is advocating for blasphemy laws — which would make questioning any religious beliefs illegal. In his mind, there is a difference between freedom of speech and "inciting hate crimes." Under U.S. law, freedom of speech ends when it can be considered an incitement to violence. However, this means that someone cannot tell people to go out and harm others; it doesn't hold people responsible for violence caused by those who are offended by what has been said. In a liberal society, using violence to censor speech or force one's views upon others is expressly forbidden.
Writing in USA Today, University of Pennsylvania religious studies professor Anthea Butler defended her call to have the film's producer arrested: "If there is anyone who values free speech, it is a tenured professor! So why did I tweet that Bacile should be in jail? The 'free speech' in Bacile's film is not about expressing a personal opinion about Islam. It denigrates the religion by depicting the faith's founder in several ludicrous and historically inaccurate scenes to incite and inflame viewers.… While the First Amendment right to free expression is important, it is also important to remember that other countries and cultures do not have to understand or respect our right."
Everyone gives lip service to freedom of speech, but apparently even tenured professors don't fully understand its meaning. A video that depicts a man who died 1,400 years ago in a bad light can in no way be considered defamatory or an incitement. Nor should we be subservient to cultures that are stuck in the dark ages — societies that deny women equal rights, punish blasphemy by death and resolve disputes through violence.
The White House's call to have the video censored is certainly worrying, but there is little danger of Shariah-style blasphemy laws coming to North America any time soon. Yet, the political left have shown a willingness to pander to the demands of Islamists in recent years and this unholy alliance makes for a powerful constituency, especially since Canada's human rights commissions have a history of persecuting people who would dare make fun of the Prophet Muhammad.
In 2006, similar riots spread across the Muslim world after a Danish newspaper printed cartoons depicting the prophet. Over 150 newspapers and hundreds of thousands of websites around the world reprinted the cartoons. But when the Western Standard magazine published the cartoons in Canada, its publisher, Ezra Levant, was dragged in front of the Alberta Human Rights Commission. As Levant wrote in his book Shakedown, he "become the first journalist in the free world to be grilled by a government inquisitor about the cartoons."
While the case was eventually dropped, it had a chilling effect on free speech in this country. Canada's major broadcasters have thus far refused to show the Innocence of Muslims video, even though it is directly related to a story that is consuming the news. On Wednesday, a French magazine published a series of new cartoons, some of which depict Muhammad naked. Does anyone really think these will be republished in Canada, or that a Canadian publication would have the freedom to make a similar commentary on events in the Middle East?
Without the right to express ourselves, we have no way of think critically about, and debate, the people and institutions that hold power over us — including the nature of the state, as well as our shared myths and most cherished beliefs. So while there's not much we can do to stop the violence abroad, we must remain vigilant at home to protect the freedoms we currently enjoy.