A film designed to offend the Muslim world has thrown everyone into fervor over the issue of freedom of speech and expression. The film, “Innocence of Muslims," depicts the prophet Muhammed (whose very depiction is considered an offense) as a violent, ignorant thug who violates just about every moral tenant there is, leading to protests and the death of at least 50 people.
A French satirical paper published a cartoon depicting Muhammed nude, which caused even more of an uproar. Now there are talks in the United Nations of making blasphemy illegal, and other countries are talking about passing laws to outlaw it themselves. But what exactly counts as blasphemy anyway?
Blasphemy is a very loosely defined word, and countries have strict legal policies in place to deal with it. In Greece, blasphemy has a penalty of a 3000 euro fine and up to two years of prison time. For an even more extreme example, in Saudi Arabia, blasphemy is punishable by death, and after having an imaginary Twitter conversation with Muhammed on his birthday, a Saudi journalist is on trial for it. But how does the home of the "free" feel about blasphemy?
After the violent protests in Libya, the White House requested that Google remove "Innocence of Muslims" from YouTube to, I assume, mitigate the outrage in the Muslim world. Google said no.
It’s unfortunate that the White House would request Google remove the video and effectively squelch a little bit of free speech, no matter how offensive. Our government is supposed to be the final safeguard of our freedoms — not a privately owned corporation. However, after Google said no, that was that. In other countries, Google was forced to block the video from being viewed due to anti-blasphemy laws.
On Sept. 26, the Arab League urged the U.N. to criminalize blasphemy by making the argument that religious insults pose serious threats to global peace and security. The head of the Arab League who made the speech before the U.N. even went so far as to say that he was making these statements as a warning. Requesting that something be restricted to prevent violence is not something that any free society should accept. Otherwise, violence and threats of violence would be confirmed as a legitimate way for people to get what they want.
The speech by the head of the Arab League came the day after President Barack Obama addressed the U.N. General Assembly with a powerful speech highlighting how important free speech is, stating, “The strongest weapon against hateful speech is not repression, it is more speech." Considering the fact that the president has been a target for some of the most hateful speech in American politics for the past four years, I think he’s a pretty credible source to talk about why freedom of speech, particularly hateful speech, should be protected.
All human beings deserve freedom of expression, speech and belief. But we have to remember that it’s a two-way street. Being allowed to believe whatever we want and talk about it, means that someone who believes you’re wrong has the right to tell you and everyone else. If we suppress speech based on subjective things like offensiveness, then we open the door for any type of speech to be suppressed. Offensive speech is in the ear of the beholder, and if we allow everyone to become a judge of that, then nothing worth being said will ever be said again. Salmaan Rushdie, who had a death warrant put on his head in 1989 for writing about Muhammed, had this to say about the creator of the “Innocence of Muslims”: “We have to protect his right to free speech. The First Amendment is one of the most valuable things we have. But that doesn’t mean we have to not say he’s a jerk.”