Middle East

Viewpoints: Anti-Islam film and self-censorship

Pakistani Sunni Muslims torch a US flag during a protest against an anti-Islam film in Lahore on 17 September, 2012

The appearance on YouTube of an anti-Islam film produced in the US has sparked protests and attacks across parts of the Middle East, Africa and Asia, in which more than 28 people have died.

The furore has prompted debate about balancing freedom of speech with freedom of religion.

Should self-censorship and regulation be imposed in order to appease the sensitivities of religious groups?

A selection of analysts give their views:

Ed Husain, senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies, US Council on Foreign Relations, and author of The Islamist.

I am a Muslim. I am a Westerner. I see no contradictions in being both.

We reached this stage of our history by ending the control of the Catholic Church on what could and could not be said or written in public. So-called heretics were killed at the stake to help secure freedom of religion, thought, and expression. These freedoms are sacrosanct to me.

It is this history of Christian Protestant bravery that led to the creation of pluralist and secular societies in the West, allowing for the first time in history for Muslims and Jews to settle there in large numbers - we were free to practise our religions freely. The barbarity of pogroms, witch-hunting, and burning heretics ended.

My fellow Muslims must understand this background. We cannot trample on the very freedoms that allow us to thrive as Muslims. Yes, it hurts when the Prophet is insulted. From Shakespeare to Thomas Paine, Western literature is full of negative references to Muslims as Moors, Turks, and followers of Mahomet.

Similarly, classical Arabic and Persian writings are replete with anti-Semitism and denial of Christ's divinity as the son of God. Yet, it is a remarkable feat that we in the West have accommodated all faiths and no faith.

This achievement cannot be reversed. Self-censorship is to reverse the gains made by our intellectual forefathers.

Just as Muslims are free in the West, Christians and other dissenters must be free in the East.

We Muslims killed some of our best luminaries because of clerical accusations of heresy, absence of freedom of thought.

From executing al-Hallaj in Baghdad to stoning Ibn Arabi in Damascus to banishing Bulleh Shah in the Punjab, the history is bitter.

They were Muslim martyrs to freedom of thought. As a Westerner and Muslim, I want to cherish these freedoms and secure liberty for future generations.

Ed Husain can be followed on Twitter: @ed_husain

Jane Kinninmont, senior research fellow, Chatham House

The protests in many Muslim countries are only partly about the Innocence of Muslims film. They have highlighted the readiness of millions of people to blame Western governments for a supposed anti-Islam agenda, with little regard for whether there were in fact any links between those governments and a poorly produced video circulated on YouTube.

Western diplomats and governments need to be sensitive to the potential for offending others - but they can't be held responsible for policing the Internet for any potentially offensive materials, whether these deal with religious sensitivities, racism or other controversial topics.

This is not just about freedom of speech, but the realities of technology. Even in authoritarian countries censorship is growing harder to enforce.

And although self-censorship is actually already taking place - artists, writers and comedians in the West are often more careful what they say about Islam than about Christianity (though sometimes for bad reasons, like fear) - this doesn't rule out the possibility of a minority view being blown out of all proportion.

Nonetheless, Western governments need to ask themselves why so many people are ready to believe in supposed conspiracies against Islam, especially after 10 years of the "war on terror", and why it is so easy to get crowds to attack US embassies.

Certainly, anti-American protests are often a safe way to vent a variety of grievances, including local ones, and they're often exploited by groups with other agendas. For instance, some Yemeni activists argue security forces were happy to see the US embassy there attacked, in order to send a message to the US about the possible dangers of giving Yemenis political freedom.

But in the Middle East, the legacy of colonialism is still keenly felt, the Iraq war remains a source of widespread anger, and the US is widely held to be hypocritical for working closely with authoritarian Arab rulers while styling itself as a force for democracy in the world.

Given the extent of ties between the US and the former government of Hosni Mubarak, it could be argued that the West is lucky that the Egyptian uprising was not more anti-American to begin with.

Jane Kinninmont can be followed on Twitter: @janekinninmont

Malise Ruthven, author, Islam in the World and Fundamentalism - A Very Short Introduction

Even if we discount the political opportunism of militants such as the killers of the US ambassador to Libya, Salafists in Cairo, Hezbollah activists in Lebanon and Taliban supporters in Kabul - all of them using the film to mobilise support against governments perceived as pro-Western, or pro-American - the fact remains that there is huge populist mileage in defending the aniconic (non-representational) image of the Prophet Muhammad, an image that has been programmed into the collective Muslim consciousness for more than 14 centuries.

There is, however, a crucial difference between being seen to trash that image publicly - as in the caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad first published in Denmark in 2005 and the most recent YouTube clip - and the deconstruction of that image using the tools of modern scholarship.

Historian Tom Holland's book and TV programme questioning the historicity of the Arabian Prophet drew protests from some Islamic scholars, but did not generate riots from Benghazi to Kabul.

These different responses suggest that there needs to be a two-pronged approach to the free speech issues raised by these epic furores. "Insulting" the Prophet should be categorised as a form of "hate-speech" comparable to racism or Holocaust denial, as forbidden in many European countries, because the sacred image of the Prophet is a constituent element of the Muslim communal identity.

But challenging the myths underpinning that collective psyche is another story - it is something that critics of other faiths have been engaged on since the Enlightenment in the 18th Century.

It would be utterly wrong for the law to discriminate in favour of Muslims by insulating them from this process, because critical engagement - about science, religion and politics - is a necessary precondition for human flourishing in the contemporary globalised world.

Abraham Foxman, US National Director of the Anti-Defamation League

There are three issues at stake in dealing with the reaction to the anti-Islam film: First and most important is the culture of religious intolerance among extremist Muslims expressed through hate speech and violence.

While the Egyptian and Libyan incidents focused attention on the anger against the West, the vast majority of the violence on religious themes is directed at fellow Muslims - Sunnis v Shiites and vice-versa - with no regard for religious sensibilities: attacks against mosques and on religious holidays.

The focus, therefore, needs first to be on the violence resulting from this culture of religious intolerance, of which anti-Western rage is just one manifestation.

Second, there needs to be in the United States more emphasis on education, teaching respect for those whose religious beliefs are different.

In particular, a distinction must be drawn between the bad actions of extremist Muslims and the values of the religion of Islam itself.

Finally, freedom of expression is one of the central pillars of American democracy.

Political and civic leaders must continue to denounce manifestations of anti-Muslim attitudes, as was done in the case of the recent outrageous film.

But the right to express one's mind, even when offensive, is not only constitutionally protected, but is at the heart of our democracy.

We must continue to defend that freedom while firmly rejecting extremist views.

Jillian York, director of International Freedom of Expression, Electronic Frontier Foundation

When speech leads to violence, even indirectly, it becomes all too tempting to suggest that self-censorship is a smart idea.

We live in a globalised world, where what someone says in New York matters in Cairo and vice versa, making it easy to suggest an extra layer of caution and sensitivity toward embattled minority groups.

Nevertheless, such suggestions create a slippery slope toward greater censorship - one day the request might be to avoid insulting a prophet, the next it might be to avoid insulting a dictator.

No single group should be treated differently from another.

This phenomenon already occurs in parts of Europe, where Holocaust-denial is criminalised, leading other groups to demand similar restrictions.

In the United States, where the Innocence of Muslims video originated, hate speech is not a crime.

Though this openness toward free expression allows for the expression of truly odious views, it also ensures that those views are given sunlight, exposed for the public to criticise and denounce.

Ultimately, the best response to hateful speech is more speech and more debate. It is the only way to a truly pluralistic society.

Jillian York can be followed on Twitter: @jilliancyork

Elmar Brok, German member of European Parliament and chairman of the Committee on Foreign Affairs

The film, which is denouncing and insulting the Prophet Muhammad, is wrong, and to be frank, repulsive.

I believe that "freedom of opinion" ends at the point where people intend to provoke hatred between nations and religions under the cover of this principle.

But at the same time I cannot accept the violence that we have witnessed. Violence and bloodshed are never acceptable.

Europe is proud about the freedom of speech, the freedom of opinion and the freedom of religion, which we have anchored in the constitutions of our countries, the Treaty of Lisbon and the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights.

But not everything that is allowed should be done. We all also know it will not be possible to completely stop such nasty material from being made public in the age of the Internet.

We have to work on reducing religious prejudice and resentment - this can only be done via education, and via role models.

Reducing prejudices and increasing tolerance needs to be done in both worlds - the Western world and the Arab world. The Christian minorities must feel safe and welcomed in Arab countries the same way that Muslim people must feel safe and welcomed in predominantly Christian countries.

We will not have peace in the world until we have peace between religions.

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