Neil Macdonald: Constitutionally protected, radioactive, anti-Muslim speech

The authors of the video invective titled Innocence of Muslims could not have anticipated when they uploaded it to the internet how spectacularly effective their propaganda exercise would be, says Neil Macdonald.

The authors of the video invective titled Innocence of Muslims could not have anticipated, when they uploaded it to the internet, how spectacularly effective their propaganda exercise would be.

Fairly quickly, it provoked outrage in the Muslim world, which regards any depiction of Muhammad as blasphemous. By Tuesday of this week, it was being used as the pretext for violent attacks on American embassies in Egypt and Libya, on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.

By Wednesday, it was dominating headlines, posing ethical dilemmas for the Western media and, best of all for the "filmmakers," the Republican presidential candidate was holding their work up as an example of an American value that must be defended, and which never merits an apology.

What more could an anti-Muslim extremist ask?

Possibly to live a little longer, given the events of this week. One of the creators of this film is now in hiding, probably not wishing to share the fate of Theo van Gogh, the Dutch filmmaker assassinated in 2004 by an Islamic radical who didn’t like his depiction of Muslim women.

But another fellow who worked to promote Innocence of Muslims, California insurance agent Steve Klein, is proudly declaring it a serious political statement. Klein, the founder of Courageous Christians United, sees himself as an exposer of truths.

It’s truly amazing, at least to me, how something as utterly buffoonish as Innocence of Muslims could provoke anything other than amused derision.

Only "trailers" are available on YouTube. They are easy enough to find. There is no evidence a longer film actually exists.

And what’s on the internet resembles the Three Stooges as much as anything. A bearded, bland-looking Caucasian dressed up to resemble the producers’ notion of Islam’s dark-skinned prophet lurches from scene to scene, naming a donkey the first animal of Islam, ordering around two assistants who could pass for Larry and Curly Joe and looking fiercely at the camera, backed by flames, slashing a sword around like Zorro.

Egyptian protesters scaled the walls of the U.S. embassy in Cairo on Tuesday, tore down the American flag and burned it during a protest over what they said was a film being produced in the United States that insulted Prophet Muhammad. (Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Reuters)

At one point, the actor playing Muhammad is chased around and around his tentpole by a woman he’s scorned. You almost expect him to yell "Why, I oughta!" and poke somebody in the eyes, flapping his other hand up and down in the air.

In general, though, religious Muslims have never shown much of a sense of humour where their religion is concerned. Quite the opposite. Steve Klein’s Islamic counterparts in the Middle East, who are often grim professionals, understand how to harness popular anger much more effectively than the anti-Muslim loudmouths here.

Clerics and Islamist activists in Egypt quickly seized on the trailers, translated them to Arabic and set about the deadly serious work of using them against America.

The Egyptian media, which loves stoking hatred of Christians or Jews, enthusiastically joined in. This went on for days, and finally, on Sept. 11, an angry crowd gathered outside the U.S. Embassy in Cairo.

What happened next must have filled the creators of Innocence of Muslims with satisfaction.

The embassy, no doubt fearing what was developing outside its walls, put out a statement: "The Embassy of the United States in Cairo condemns the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims — as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions," it said.

"Respect for religious beliefs is a cornerstone of American democracy. We firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others."

The statement was seized immediately by right-wingers in the U.S., who denounced it as "disgusting." More evidence that this administration caves to terrorism, declared the pundits of Fox News.

It also fit neatly into the time-worn Republican attack line that Barack Obama has been running around the world for years, "apologizing for America" to its Muslim enemies.

Mitt Romney was in front of cameras quickly. He called the embassy statement "disgraceful," and pinned the blame on Obama. The embassy, he said, speaks for the president.

Even as conservatives fumed, though, the protests turned into something a lot more serious.

Gunmen soon arrived at the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, reportedly using military tactics to "defend the Prophet." Within hours, four diplomats lay murdered and an international crisis had erupted.

The U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi, in eastern Libya, is seen in flames on Tuesday. Four Americans, including the ambassador, were killed in the deadly attack. (Esam Al-Fetori/Reuters)

Romney, facing mounting blowback for politicizing the crisis, stuck to his line Wednesday. The anti-Muslim video, he said, is speech, and free speech is a constitutionally protected American value, and under no circumstances should the American government ever apologize for it.

You can debate that position all you like, but Romney is correct about the status of Innocence of Muslims as protected speech.

Its quality is irrelevant. The "filmmakers" themselves are about as significant as cockroaches, as are its supporters, like the Muslim-baiting Florida pastor Terry Jones, who is just delighted with their internet effort. (And for whom the U.S. government has also found itself apologizing in the past.)

Speech is protected in the U.S., and at the risk of repeating a hackneyed aphorism, free speech is worthless unless it applies to offensive speech. It is an American value, and one well worth protecting.

The trouble is, the framers of the U.S. Constitution didn’t anticipate the internet, which gives any idiot the ability to trigger an international crisis.

They didn’t anticipate a world would develop in which a Danish cartoonist’s mocking caricatures of Muhammad would trigger riots and murder thousands of miles from Denmark. Or a world in which any fool who decides to burn a Qur'an outside a strip mall in Florida can actually endanger Americans abroad.

Journalists are just as flummoxed as governments by this phenomenon. News managers will without a thought show images of sacrileges such as the "Piss Christ" photograph, the Taliban’s decision to blow up ancient statues of Buddha in Afghanistan, the whistling crucifixion scene in Monty Python’s The Life of Brian, the 1999 painting of the Virgin Mary stained with elephant feces or the musical The Book of Mormon, now playing on Broadway.

Christians, Jews, Buddhists and Hindus, after all, rarely react with lethal riots and executions.

But mob violence by angry Muslims has filled news organizations with justifiable fear that showing the cause of the violence could actually exacerbate it.

A lot of them, CBC-TV’s English-language network included, decided not to broadcast or display any part of Innocence of Muslims. Some news websites provided links to the video, a routine practice, others did not.

In other words, the fact that a particular religious group is more likely to react with extreme violence to images helped shape editorial decisions on whether to run those images once they become a major news event. As is often the case in the Middle East, violence works.

The fact is, the anti-Islamic extremists who produced that dull-witted video found objective allies among the Muslims they hate so much. Both groups, for entirely different reasons, had an interest in ensuring as many Muslims as possible saw the video.

Frankly, had I been inside that embassy in Cairo when the mob started to gather, I’d have apologized pretty quickly for its existence, and loudly. Mitt Romney might have, too. Ambassador Chris Stevens in Libya probably never got the chance.

But speech is sacred in this country, even speech that can be weaponized. And there is a price to be paid.


Neil Macdonald is a former foreign correspondent and columnist for CBC News who has also worked in newspapers. He speaks English and French fluently, as well as some Arabic.