Blasphemy, protest and the fight for free speech

You’ve probably noticed that there have been protests all over the world about a film called The Innocence of Muslims. These protests have resulted in the death of  the US ambassador to Libya and the deaths of at least nineteen people in Pakistan as well as others around the Middle East. Yesterday there were protests about the film in Birmingham, fortunately without the deaths that have accompanied protests in other countries. The film in question is laughably bad. It is ultra-low budget with bad acting and plastic toys as props. It is however extremely offensive to Muslims, and seems to be deliberately so.

The film seems to have acted as a trigger which has been added to all the anger already there about past interference and wars by the US and other western states. The protesters attacked US embassies and burned US flags perhaps because they blame America as a whole for the existence of the film. This is wrong however. The film makers are in a country where they have freedom of speech. They have the freedom to believe what they want, talk to who they want and say what they want and the government cannot lawfully stop them. The same applies to the group that wanted to burn the Koran  last year which caused similar uproar, and to the French magazine that printed cartoons of Muhammed. It also applies to protesters here. In fact in Birmingham here in the UK the police said this:

“West Midlands Police have no power to ban a static protest – in fact the right to protest peacefully is a sign of a healthy democracy and we have a positive duty to facilitate that right.”

(I wish our police forces were so enlightened about other protests.)

Under the European Convention on Human Rights here in Europe we have a specific set of freedoms around the topic of free speech: freedom of conscience and religion, (Article 9) freedom of expression, (Article 10) and freedom of assembly and association. (Article 11.)  It is exactly these same rights that apply to both those who wish to adhere to a religion and those who do not believe; to those who wish to speak publicly about their religion and to those who wish to publicly criticise it; to those who wish to protest on the streets and those who wish to protest in opposition to them.

There is an argument that when something such as this film is likely to  inflame such a vast and violent response that the freedom of expression of the film makers should be limited to prevent the response but that cannot happen. While we could ban idiots from provoking riots, banning idiots would only lead to oppression because someone has to decide who is the idiot, and that decision is not guaranteed to be trustworthy or correct.

These protesters need to realise that banning the film means violating freedom of expression, and that in doing so they are endangering their own rights to talk about their religion or to protest. They are not thinking in those terms, however, and merely wish to enforce their own religion at the cost of all other opinions. Preventing such a scenario is the very reason why in the US and Europe we  have freedom of expression that is meant to apply to everyone.

The protests about the film The Innocence of Muslims have taken a darker turn today. A Pakistan government minister Ghulam Ahmad Bilour has offered a bounty of a hundred thousand dollars for the murder of the makers of the film.

This is not freedom of expression or freedom of conscience and religion; it is the exact opposite. It is someone wishing to force their religious view on other people by any means necessary including murder.

In the end these people are only allowed to protest because they have the same freedoms that they demand be taken away from the film makers. (Or at least the protests are being tolerated, in countries where such freedoms are not enshrined in law.) It’s all or nothing. If I want freedom of speech then people I disagree with also have to have it. Demanding that they don’t would be stupid. Something that has escaped a great many people.


Protests in Birmingham against American anti-Islam film [Birmingham Mail]

YouTube under new pressure over anti-Muslim film [BBC]

Pakistan film protests: 19 die in Karachi and Peshawar [BBC]

Anti-Islam film: Pakistan minister offers bounty [BBC]


Author: Latentexistence

The world is broken and I can't fix it because I am broken. I can, however, rant about it all and this is where I do that when I can get my thoughts together. Most of the time you'll find my words on Twitter rather than here though. I sometimes write for Where's The Benefit too.

2 thoughts on “Blasphemy, protest and the fight for free speech”

  1. While I applaud your post tackling the issues that fredom of speech currently faces I think that your argument is missing a few things.

    The following are not well confirmed and have been harvested from various press reports but do provide a different interpretation of events.

    1) in Libya there was a 3 day warning of attacks against ‘american imperialism’.

    2) The original film ‘innocence of muslims’ had been released on youtube for many months with no problems.

    3) Somebody decided to translate the film into arabic and air it on Eygptian national television just in time for the 9/11 commemorations. Given that Egyptian national television is 100% state controlled the blame can be placed squarely at the feet of the muslim brotherhood.

    I have to ask given the context do you really think this was a spontaneous popular uprising or more a coordinated assault on western values by extremist islamists determined to increase their influence in a chaotic situation?

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