by Sarah Joseph
Last Thursday at The Conversation I wrote about the human rights issues involved in censoring, or not censoring, the anti-Islamic film made in California and posted as a trailer on YouTube, Innocence of Muslims. Since that piece, storms of protest have continued to break out in Muslim States, and protest-related deaths have occurred in Yemen, Tunisia, Sudan and Lebanon. There were also killings of US embassy staff and Libyans in Benghazi though they may have been caused by insurgent attacks unrelated to anger over this movie. Serious property damage occurred too, for example the German embassy in Khartoum was set on fire. Hence, US allies were targeted as well.
Protests against the movie were also held in Sydney after I wrote this (but before posting). I will not address that protest here, though I may discuss it in a future post.
Human Rights and Human Responsibilities
I concluded in the Conversation post that the censorship of the film by the US was not demanded under international human rights law. While it may be hateful, the film seems unlikely to constitute prohibited hate speech, and there is no human right not to be offended on a religious basis. This conclusion on the legal position does not endorse the movie: plenty of free speech has deplorable content.
Until 2011, a battle was fought within the UN Human Rights Council over whether “defamation of religion” should be prohibited under human rights law. The strongest proponents of the resolution were States from the Organisation of Islamic Conference. The resolution was finally withdrawn last year. Defamation of religion or deceased religious figures, insofar as it seeks to protect religions as opposed to people, is simply not a human rights law issue.
The US’s censorship of the movie, given foreseeable reactive public order breakdowns (albeit in other countries), would be allowed (but not demanded) under international human rights law. However, its censorship is simply not permissible under the very strong free speech protections in US constitutional law. So the US’s hands are tied, legally.
The most arguable case for censorship under human rights law is that the publication of the film trailer on the internet foreseeably led to riots and deaths, thus harming the rights to security of the person, and life, of the victims. Indeed, the details that have emerged about this film indicate that its makers may have intended or at least expected their film to generate mayhem in Muslim countries. The most insulting prose about the Prophet Muhammed was overdubbed, so the actors were unaware of the actual final dialogue. The trailer was released in an Arabic version, surely unusual for a California-made film. And the film’s creator posed as an Israeli, thus raising the possibility that Jews would be blamed for the affront. The filmmakers’ actions were cowardly, as they wantonly placed unknown others in danger rather than themselves.
However, the responsibility for the riots and deaths falls on the rioters and killers rather than the film makers. To say otherwise is to infantilise the former, and deny them responsibility for their own intolerant actions. Peaceful protest against the movie is perfectly acceptable. But riots are simply not a justified response, no matter how offensive the movie is.
Egyptian President Morsi has stated that the insulting of the prophet was a “red line” which could not be crossed. But that “red line” cannot be imposed on other people. In particular, the US cannot be expected to alter its constitutional values in order to prevent the making of such films. That is not only a domestic legal impossibility but an unacceptable cultural imposition. The existence of the film on the internet is not an equivalent imposition as no one is compelled to watch it. It is only one of billions of posts in a sea of internet sites, including many other horrible ones.
Human Rights Impositions
Having mentioned cultural impositions, I will make a short segue here. The international human rights system itself is sometimes criticised as representing an imposition of Western values on other peoples. This “cultural relativist” debate is a huge issue to which I cannot do justice in this blogpost. Suffice to make the following comments.
International human rights law does reflect secular liberal democratic values more than, for example, the values of Sharia or indeed the Bible. But let us put this “imposition” in perspective. States are rarely “punished” for cultural departures from international human rights law by anything more than international criticism.
Such an “imposition” equates with a State, for example Egypt, making diplomatic representations to the US over the making of this movie, or a critical statement in the UN General Assembly. Such an imposition equates with the holding of peaceful protests against the movie, or even (perhaps) an organised boycott of US goods in protest. However, such a soft ball imposition does not equate with a demand that Western countries respect, within their own jurisdictions, the cultural red lines of other people lest those other people riot, injure or kill people.
Real Western Impositions
While the movie was a catalyst for the riots, the underlying cause is likely to be far more complex. After all, plenty of anti-Muslim and anti-Muhammad material is routinely placed on the internet without causing such a reaction. So why this, now?
The US has not “imposed” on the Middle East by allowing the making of this movie. But many Arabs are resentful that the US has “imposed” its interests upon them in many ways over many decades, rendering them pawns in US foreign policy. The war in Iraq, drone warfare, default support for Israel despite the occupation, long-standing support for brutal dictatorships (which continues in some States like Bahrain) despite the rhetoric of freedom: all of these policies have generated a strong current of latent anti-Americanism. When tapped, as has occurred with this movie, it can explode in unpredictable and violent ways.
The US seems wilfully blind, or uncaring, as to the fact of these impositions, and the hatred they stir up in some. For example, President Obama talks of justice being done over the US deaths in Benghazi. What does that actually mean, given the murders were in another country? Will drone warfare, which has generated so much hatred in Pakistan, now come to Libya? Chillingly, the Daily Telegraph in the UK talked of how Obama might attract political flak in the US presidential campaign due to the lack of “obvious avenues for an aggressive response” to the Benghazi killings.
Hillary Clinton initially expressed surprise that Libyans would kill the US ambassador when the US had played a role in “saving” them from Gaddafi. Does she really think that NATO bombing generated no animosity at all? Or the West’s coddling of Gaddafi in the years before his overthrow? Does she really believe the US acted out of pure altruism in the Libyan civil war, and/or that Libyans believe that?
As a final example from the other side of US politics, Sarah Palin has taunted Obama over his responsibility for the apparent “failure” of the Arab Spring. In doing so, she assumes that the US could have and should have done something to stop it. What, exactly? Failure, by the way, is seen totally in terms of US interests rather than in terms of the actual people in the countries involved.
It is unlikely the US will alter its course any time soon in order to banish anti-American sentiment in the Middle East. After all, Ron Paul was the only Presidential candidate who explicitly acknowledged that the US had no inherent right to butt into every other country’s business when it suited. And, of course, the simmering flames of anti-Western sentiment are exploited by radical Islamist groups, who gleefully add fuel when the opportunity arises.
But some moves can perhaps be made to deal with the catalyst that is the deadly overreaction to the provocations of anti-Muslim publications. The US government has made clear that it does not endorse the denigration of Islam. But it must also explain that its constitutional laws and values preclude the censorship of such content. And it should explain that those constitutional values equally protect speech that denigrates Christians, Jews, Buddhists, and so on. The US cannot force others to adopt its free speech values in their own countries, but it can explain how it works at home.
Arab governments must play the key role here. Unfortunately, the robust protection of the Prophet’s reputation from foreign provocateurs, as well as jumping on the bandwagon of anti-Western sentiment, is seen to bring political advantages. But there is surely greater political advantage for Arab governments in taking steps to prevent conflagrations, where most of the victims end up being their own people, often killed by their own riot police. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood tried to play both sides of the fence, by calling for Friday protests and then cancelling most of them. It probably ended up diminished in the eyes of the protesters and the US, and learnt a lesson in what it is like to be in government.
Arab governments must endeavour to explain that the movie and like publications are the work of insignificant private instigators; they are not endorsed by Western governments. And instead of talk of “red lines” which legitimise riots, the fringe and absurd nature of this publication should have been emphasised. Innocence of Muslims is nothing but a shonky film placed, like billions of other publications, on the internet. It deserves disdain and irrelevance rather than the prominent notoriety its makers probably sought and have received.
Such measures may only paper over the cracks opened up by simmering anti-Western feelings. But, while many Muslims in the Arab world were offended by this movie, and many do not trust the West for a variety of reasons, only a tiny few endorse rioting and the killing of people in response. That overwhelming sentiment must be harnessed and built upon, preferably before the next incendiary publication comes along.