The current turmoil in the Muslim world that has unfolded over the YouTube video clip Innocence of Muslims offers the U.S. what educators call a “teachable moment:” an opportunity provided by circumstance to explain an idea that the audience might otherwise find abstract and irrelevant.
The idea is freedom of expression.
Several months ago, Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, a California producer posing as Israeli citizen Sam Bacile, produced, then posted on YouTube, a movie trailer meant to offend Muslims. Very likely, additional goals were to elicit violent reactions in the Middle East, portray President Obama as weak and force him into a confrontation with Islamists.
The trailer, which columnists have described as wooden, stilted, and cheap, goes out of its way to hit the nerves of Muslims. It calls Muhammad a bastard, depicts him as crawling around the legs of his wife Khadija and performing cunnilingus on her.
This clip violates Islam’s rule of not creating images – even complimentary ones – of the prophet. But more importantly, it portrays Muhammad as a fool, guided not by divine inspiration but the guile of a sexually manipulative wife. In the patriarchal societies of the Middle East, which view men as the rational protectors of irrational women, females as constant sources of seduction, and talk of sexuality as a taboo, this scene alone is highly offensive.
Analysts suggest that Libyan terrorist groups planned attacks against U.S. diplomats long in advance and simply used the Benghazi demonstrations to launch them. In other locations, commentators say, food insecurity created a fertile environment of anxiety and resentment, which radical Islamist agitators, in railing against Innocence of Muslims, have used to shore up their own political status. These explanations may be true; but they alone do not account for the personal outrage that has shaken U.S. outposts across the Muslim world. Citizens of Egypt, Libya, Sudan, Yemen, Algeria, Tunisia, Gaza, Lebanon, Jordan, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and even Indonesia are clearly upset. Why, they ask, do Americans insult God? When will the guilty be punished? When will the United States apologize?
The second question is easy to answer. Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, who in 2010 pled no contest to charges of bank fraud, will likely be penalized for accessing the Internet without permission from his probation officer and thus violating the terms of his probation. But the United States, while it may hold its nose when discussing the film, will not apologize for allowing Innocence of Muslims to be posted.
Without coming across as defensive, President Obama should take advantage of the fact that Muslims across the world are waiting for a statement. Rather than letting the crisis blow over, he ought to use the moment to explain the Constitution’s First Amendment and freedom of speech, a principle unfamiliar to societies of the Middle East and Southern Asia but at the heart of democracy.
In a public speech reminiscent of his Cairo address of June 2009, he might pay tribute to Ambassador Chris Stevens, a diplomat who supported the liberation of Libya, and three other casualties of the Benghazi attack, Sean Smith, Glen Doherty, and Tyrone Woods.
Then he might reiterate what Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said before, namely that both he and his leadership team find this video repulsive and offensive. He might add that the clip reflects the views of a very small segment of society. Americans – especially those who have never met a Muslim - may be uneasy with a faith that is unfamiliar to them. But 95 percent believe that the Qur’an ought to be treated with respect. Similarly, the overwhelming majority of citizens of the Muslim world respect diplomats’ right to life and safety.
Next, the president might explain why he will not prohibit the video: One of the fundamental rights that people on American soil have had for over 200 years – especially after the end of slavery - is freedom of speech, a freedom that can only be restricted or sanctioned under the narrowest of circumstances. Freedom of speech is the basis of democracy. It requires that even offensive language be protected, for only expansive protections will shield citizens from a government intent on eroding their privileges.
With the Arab Spring, citizens of Muslim societies have expressed their desire for a greater say in the affairs of their governments, for more democracy. But democracy is not available for free. It depends on participation and debate, and honest debate is only possible if the participants can express their views openly, without fear of ending up in jail. The best way to show all participants that they are safe in airing their views is to protect the speech even of those whom the majority considers outrageous. That is why in a democratic society no president can deprive citizens of their constitutional entitlement to expression, even if he wants to. Listening to offensive speech is the price citizens pay for democracy, and most do so willingly.
Those citizens who feel offended are, of course, entitled to speak back to the offender, even engage in nonviolent protests. The limits are reached when public or private property is destroyed, foreign embassies are stormed, people are harmed or killed.
Lastly, President Obama might state that Ambassador Chris Stevens stood for these very principles when he became a foreign service officer, and when he later urged the U.S. government to support the liberation of Libya.
President Obama has shown on numerous occasions that he is a talented orator with a great sense for cultural nuance. Now is the time to take advantage of this gift and to speak without appearing either meek to his American audience or condescending to his interlocutors overseas.
Many people in the Middle East and Southern Asia know, and therefore expect, strict penalties for insulting God, his divine revelations, or his prophets. In Kuwait, a 26-year old was recently sentenced to 10 years in prison for using Twitter to insult the prophet as well as the rulers of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. In Saudi Arabia, judges sentenced an Australian to 500 lashes and a year in jail for engaging in blasphemy. This May, Pakistan suspended Twitter because of material the government deemed blasphemous. In Egypt, where a constitutional assembly is drawing up a new constitution, the framers are about to constitutionally criminalize blasphemy – a first in the nation’s modern history. We should not be surprised that residents of these societies demand the very penalties for the makers of Innocence of Muslims to which they are being treated.
Citizens of these nations do not appreciate how valuable freedom of speech is in protecting them from the very dictatorships Tunisians, Libyans, Egyptians, and Syrians have struggled so hard to overcome. But right now, they want to hear from the United States. If President Obama keeps his silence, this moment will become a memory of insult and murder. In fact, the seeds for this may already be germinating: In Egypt, an Islamist member of the Shura Council – part of the country’s legislature – announced that a group is forming that consists of young people from various Islamist persuasions. Its aim is “to defend the Prophet by producing documentaries about the history of Christianity and Judaism.” In other words, some of Egypt’s young Islamists believe that tit-for-tat, insult for insult, is the appropriate answer to Innocence of Muslims.
If, on the other hand, Obama speaks to the video and its consequences, explaining that listening to obscenity once in a while is the price that democrats are willing to pay for their ability to participate in the political process, he may be able to heal some of the injury to the American psyche from the killing of U.S. personnel. He also might succeed in convincing many of the 1.6 billion people in the Muslim world that even though the United States does not penalize offensive speech, it understands the injury that it can cause.
And in the process, he just might open a few minds to a truly revolutionary idea.