The anti-Muslim film sparking all the controversy, Innocence of Muslims, challenges the very foundations of “freedom of expression” and our Bill of Rights. It has ignited protests and violence around the world. We must also examine our own fears of people with different beliefs and not get caught up in the blame game of the moment and the scape-goating of a whole community.
Anti-American protests, when turning violent, have been responsible for a number of deaths including the U.S. Ambassador to Libya and three embassy staff. Other incidents have included protests and violence around the world, a Pakistan government minister offering $100,000 for the death of the film maker, attacks on U.S. Embassies and anti-Muslim signs going up in New York subways.
The film itself clearly shows the Prophet Mohammed as a sex-crazed and violent man with Muslim followers supporting his hedonistic and violent desires. In the 14 minute film made for $5 million by an American, ALLAH and Mohammed are depicted as evil and Islam is depicted as a lie! The Koran is misrepresented as the constitution of Islam allowing for adultery and the rights of men to have sex with any woman at any time. It also says that all those who do not follow ALLAH should be killed.
Putting aside for a moment the absurdity of the film’s content, where do we draw the lines between freedom of expression and public responsibility/safety? Many of us learned growing up that this line is drawn in the following way. You cannot yell fire in a crowded theatre and cause a panic. First Amendment rights end when the public can be harmed or is in danger. “The question in every case is whether the words used are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger,” writes Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. in 1919.
Of course in 1919, we did not have computers, the internet or YouTube. In my mind, the film Innocense of Muslims did create “a clear and present danger.” But as a journalist, I also carry with me the fears of censorship. What if I wrote something in this column that depicted the Latino community in a negative way and caused a riot in Allentown? How would we respond to this?
Over the next two decades, the Muslim population worldwide will grow at twice the rate of the non-Muslim population. In the United States by 2030, the Muslim population will be 1.7% and equal to the number of American Jews and the number of Episcopalians, according to the Pew Research Center.
So, we are all called to better understand Islam and the culture of the Muslim population. We can first do this in our own communities, in the workplace and in our neighborhoods by building new relationships. Second, we must look at our laws protecting freedom of speech in the context of our technology in an age of instant information.
The “clear and present dangers” in the world create a fragile climate that can instigate violence and war. Our wisdom will determine whether we can live in peace and justice. The choice is ours!