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September 29, 2012

Violence over film goes much deeper than blasphemy

The Daily Star

---- — The amateurish film, “Innocence of Muslims,” posted on YouTube, angered many Muslims for its negative portrayal of Muhammad, and more than 50 people, including the U.S. ambassador to Libya, have been killed in the resulting violence.

It may be difficult today for Americans to understand how public criticism of a prophet or savior can lead to organized violence and murder. Even President Obama, speaking at the United Nations this week, challenged the world to seek out the root causes of the rage and violence.

But those issues shouldn’t be that elusive. The causes go far below the surface of protests, riots and deadly violence, and include religious tolerance and fundamentalism, the continued U.S. meddling in Middle East nations, and free speech.

The evidence of history shows that religions, and especially their fundamentalist adherents, have instigated as much of the world’s wars and violence as their secular counterpart, nationalism. When the two forces are linked by extremists, the results can be deadly. The horrific tragedy of 9/11 is a prime example.

But it wasn’t too many years ago that Christians in Northern Ireland were killing each other because of their Catholic and Protestant differences. And centuries earlier, you probably wouldn’t want to know how many so-called heretics were put to death for alleged blasphemy by Christian authorities.

Anybody can post a video to YouTube, and the fact that enraged Muslims linked it to the United States as a nation and government illustrates that, despite the Arab Spring changes, there continue to be fundamentalist factions that hate the West.

Today, Americans pride themselves for tolerance, though it may seem lacking in our everyday arguing about political and religious issues and especially with people like pastor Terry Jones and his “Burn a Quran Day.’’ That’s why President Obama, shortly after the Muslim protests over the video began and before they became deadly, reiterated religious tolerance as one of our values and condemned the film.

In some parts of the Muslim world, blasphemy is grounds for a death sentence and any medium expressing it is banned. Look at the case of Salmon Rushdie, whose execution was ordered in 1989 and his book “The Satanic Verses’’ banned in much of the Muslim world.

Likewise, a Pakistani official has offered a $100,000 reward to anyone who executes the makers of the “Innocence of Muslims.’’

The U.S. involvement in the “Arab Spring’’ uprisings last year may have been laid-back and overtly non-aggressive, but to many fundamentalists and nationalists we were meddling. And Obama has vowed to continue to push for democratic reforms where peoples demand them.

The violent attacks in Libya and protests in Egypt and elsewhere after the anti-Islam video surfaced are more than just a reaction to the blasphemy coming from the U.S. A seething resentment was brewing and continues to percolate regarding our Middle East policies and arming of Israel.

Most Muslims are deeply offended by statements that insult Islam and its prophet Muhammad. And such speech is legally banned as blasphemy in many Islamic nations.

And many Muslims just can’t understand why the U.S. government can’t and won’t ban the video and force YouTube to remove it from the Internet. Our First Amendment free-speech protections are alien to many Muslim cultures, which see shielding Islam from blasphemy as more sacred than freedom of expression.

Even many Americans have wondered if the video warrants free-speech protection if it were posted with the intent of inciting violence and deaths.

Our most-famous test case involves the hypothetical person who falsely yells “fire’’ in a crowded theater, resulting in a panic, stampede and injuries. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, in his opinion in Schenk v. United States, held that such an action would not be protected because there was no fire.

The criticism of the “Innocence of Muslims,’’ however, is not that it is false, but that it is blasphemous. YouTube’s rules limit free expression by barring content that it considers “hate speech,’’ but it has argued that the video is more a promotion of ideas that question the authority of Mohammad.

The U.S. courts have a long history of protecting individual free speech over the objections of groups that may be offended. That tradition now is clashing with a culture and a religion that place the institution Islam far above the rights of individual expression.

We have to encourage Americans to be more tolerant and urge Muslims who loathe U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East to understand that they can openly condemn free expression with which they don’t agree without resorting to deadly violence.

Cary Brunswick, of Oneonta, is a freelance writer and editor of He can be reached at