The Islamic World is in an uproar over an anti-Islam film made in America. People have died in violent protests in Cairo, Benghazi and Sana’a, including the US Ambassador to Libya. The protests are spreading to other Muslim countries, but the anti-American nature of these protests is evidence of a dismal misunderstanding.
It’s a new episode of an old story. After the Danish cartoons and the Dutch anti-Islam film Fitna, now we have the film The innocence of Muslims. The maker is an American, a Coptic Christian who believes Islam is “a cancerous tumour”.
Islam is a well-established world religion, precious to millions of people for whom their Faith is the basis of their humanity. A film that depicts the founding prophet of that religion as a voracious womaniser and mass murderer is a malicious attempt to offend those believers. That Muslims want to protest against such a film is not surprising. But why do they aim their protests at American embassies?
Muslims argue that this American film is evidence of a lack of understanding and ignorance about Islam. But the fact that the protests are aimed at the country where the film was made is evidence of an ignorance about the most fundamental principles of democracy and free speech that is equally alarming.
In a democracy, it’s not the president or the government who’s the final authority, but the law of the land. And that law guarantees freedom of expression. In other words, the US administration cannot simply ban the film as the protestors seem to believe.
The right to freedom of expression means an individual has the right to say whatever they want, as long as they do not incite others to violence. Americans and Europeans are proud of that freedom and believe it means conflicts can be resolved with discussion, not with violence and repression. This freedom is as precious to them as Islam is to Muslims.
But freedom of expression means that sometimes things are said or written, or filmed, that the vast majority find morally repugnant. There is a famous quote attributed to the French philosopher Voltaire that sums up the dilemma very neatly: ‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it’.
Pay no attention
The protesting Muslims need to understand that the film is the work of an extremist individual and their angry reactions are exactly what he was aiming to provoke. They need to understand that most Americans, including the government, share their disapproval. And that the best thing to do about such a film is simply ignore it, as most Americans do.