How are we to understand the rioting and violence across the world, over the past week, resulting from a YouTube video? A fringe California gas station owner, reportedly either a Coptic Christian or an Israeli Jew, who goes by, among other names, Sam Bacile and Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, uploaded a video on YouTube. The video — a trailer for a supposed film “Innocence of Muslims” — lampoons and falsifies the life and ideals of the prophet Mohammad. It is tasteless, amateurish and provocative. The violence that has followed it is similar, but far more real and far worse.
The video itself and the violent reactions to it bring several issues to the fore. One among them, and perhaps the most important, is the question of freedom of expression: When and what can you express, given that, thanks to the Internet, your expression is never too far from another country and may be illegal in it?
Sam Becile’s background and the events surrounding the making of the video remain unclear. He is, without doubt, guilty of tastelessness. But that is all. He has not, prima facie, breached any American law, as Professor Jack Balkin of Yale Law School has argued. American laws protecting freedom of speech allow for videos of the sort Bacile made.
It would have been illegal, however, for him to have made and uploaded the video in, say, Egypt. Law and custom in Egypt, and in several other countries, ban the criticism of God.
Acting in line with this view, rioters have blamed America for the video. They have also insisted that America restrict its citizens’ right of expression and punish Becile.
Now, it would typically be easy to dismiss the advocacy of foreigners on matters concerning what one’s own country should or should not do. But the rioters advocating their cause are truly global. As The Atlantic reported, the rioting has taken place in most continents and many countries. The rioters are also belligerent. If you disagree with them, they will attack you, those who represent you or property that can be associated with you.
The riots signal something of the start of a global struggle between what can and cannot be said. We, of course, should remain firmly on the side of freedom of expression. If one person’s views offend another, the latter is free to debate and make his case — peaceably. The rioters, in contrast, represent the closing of debate.
Would it be helpful if every American were mindful of sensitivities towards religion, such as of the rioters? Certainly. But that doesn’t mean that every time rioting breaks out and people are killed as a result of the freedom of expression, that the author, or the artist, or the filmmaker is guilty. It is possible that they might be tasteless, such as in Bacile’s case. But the blame for the violence and the destruction rests squarely upon the rioters and the killers. No country in the world, nor international law, permits the violation of public property — and certainly not of the brazen sort over the last few days in Sydney and London, Benghazi and Tunis, Chennai and Jakarta.
The rebuttal to the above argument might be that if we are to continue with our commitment to freedom of expression, someone else might make another video, two months from now, which may inflame passions abroad. Yet again, property would be destroyed and lives would be lost. Were this to happen, responsibility for destruction, as before, would rest upon the rioters, and the losses would certainly be regrettable.
But they can be prevented. As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and President Barack Obama have strongly emphasized, it is the responsibility of countries to protect the embassies they host. If violence were to break out in Indonesia, say two months from now, it would be the responsibility of Indonesian authorities to safeguard diplomatic buildings. This time around, of course, a lot of governments were inexcusably slow in responding. It rests upon the American government to be more forceful in demanding security for its embassies.
What is strange is the number of people who have paid attention to and been influenced by Becile’s video. As Andrew Marantz wrote in the New Yorker, “people taking umbrage at ‘Innocence of Muslims’ are giving it more respect than it deserves.” By giving it attention, they are recognizing a fringe extremist voice. Were Becile’s video simply dismissed or criticized for the little it is worth, as several Islamic and other intellectuals and governments have suggested, religion and freedom would both be upheld. Egyptian law and American law are not necessarily irreconcilable, as the rioters seem to suggest. But illegal rioting and American law necessarily are.
Abhimanyu Chandra is a junior in Branford College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .
CLARIFICATION: Sept. 18, 2012
Due to an editing error, the first paragraph of this piece was cut off.