“Some men just want to watch the world burn.” While Alfred from The Dark Knight was referring to a deluded psychopath, his words seem fitting to describe Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, who under the pseudonym “Sam Bacile,” has sparked outrage across the Muslim world. Nakoula’s The Innocence of Muslims with its scandalous portrayal of the Prophet Muhammed, has led to appalling, wide-spread violence and protest.
History has a tendency to repeat itself. Criticism of Islam and the Prophet is never taken lightly, especially in Islamic states. Salman Rushdie spent ten years in hiding following the publication of his controversial book The Satanic Verses. In November 2004, Dutch film maker Theo van Gogh was brutally murdered on the streets of Amsterdam for his short film Submission, which dealt with brutality against women in some Islamic states. An oblivious British school-teacher in Sudan provoked anger and fury when she named the classroom teddy bear “Muhammed” in 2007. Sadly, the list doesn’t end there, but these examples are sufficient to emphasize the lesson.
Indeed, it would appear almost idiotic and fatuous to produce a video openly mocking the Prophet and for that reason, it would seem that Nakoula was well aware of what the outcomes of his actions would be. I am doubtful of the assertion that Nakoula was merely exercising his rights, as protected by the First Amendment. Yet, such an assertion is not entirely without validity.
Freedom of speech, as protected by constitutional rights both in the United States and Canada, is not limited by religious tolerance. Nakoula’s video was certainly distasteful and obnoxious, but he should he be condemned and threatened with death for exercising his rights? Many Muslims in Canada value such rights, which is perhaps why we haven’t seen such brutal demonstrations in this country. Outside our borders, however, lies an entirely different story. Protests have been marked by the burning of American flags, death threats, attacks on embassies, and the death of an American ambassador.
Such events can only lead one to the conclusion that freedom of speech is truly a Western phenomenon. The Eastern disposition is not individualistic, rather serving of the community as a whole. Islam itself is not merely a religion, it is — as many Muslims proclaim — a way of life. This implies that Islam reaches to the very core of the community: it dictates not only how people must live out their lives, but also how they should govern themselves. It is as much a political ideology as it is a religion. Hence, an attack on the Prophet is an attack on the existence of Muslims.
We are left with a dilemma. How can two differing ideologies coexist peacefully in a world dependent on globalization? While engaging in discourse that is of better taste than Nakoula’s would be advisable, defining limits to freedom of speech is not the answer. While we should all find Nakoula’s message abhorrent, we should stand by his right to express it.
There isn’t an easy answer to this dilemma, but any productive course of action will require better mutual understanding. The protesters have been very quick to come out against the United States, assuming the government played a role. That proclamation is absurd. Unlike many countries where these protests are taking place, the American government does not sanction all media, because American citizens are free to express themselves.
Furthermore the United States would have no interests in the production of such a film,. It would be wise for the US to better inform people of the more positive role the Western world plays. A simple assessment of statistics by USAID will show that the largest recipients of US economic and military aid are countries like Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Egypt, and Sudan, who together receive more than fifteen billion dollars annually. In my opinion, this is a very generous act by the American taxpayer.
Thus, it would seem that knowledge is key. If people could be more informed, global society would act in a manner more conducive to our common good. A cartoonist may have second thoughts before drawing an offensive cartoon, and if he didn’t, his actions would not lead to violence and disastrous consequences. This is idealistic thinking, but until we’re ready to talk and share ideas, progress is impossible.