Muslims Abroad Should Respect the American Tradition of Free Speech as They Debate Their Own

Pakistani students chant anti-US slogans at a rally to protest against the making of a blasphemous film by a U.S. filmmaker a
Pakistani students chant anti-US slogans at a rally to protest against the making of a blasphemous film by a U.S. filmmaker at Karachi university on Wednesday, Sept. 26, 2012 in Pakistan. A Pakistani Taliban spokesman says the militant group has announced an amnesty for a minister who offered a $100,000 bounty for anyone who kills the maker of an anti-Islam film. (AP Photo/Fareed Khan)

by Parvez Ahmed and Mark Schlakman

Buried in the avalanche of stories about violent demonstrations across several majority Muslim countries, at least in part in reaction to a deplorable anti-Islam film produced in the United States by a shadowy individual with a criminal history, is a news item that generated much less attention. Muhammad Ali, the globally renowned American boxer, received the Liberty Medal from the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia for a lifetime of service championing humanitarian causes, civil rights and religious freedom.

Profound symbolism attaches to this award, which is presented to those who display courage and conviction in championing the freedom of all people. How ironic. While one of the most famous Muslims in the United States was being honored for embodying the best of American constitutional values, from which the principles of America's unique brand of free speech arise, a relatively small number of Muslims raged over the reprehensible depiction of Prophet Muhammad and captured the attention of the global media.

The now infamous video, "Innocence of Muslims," might have been relegated to an obscure footnote in history if not for an Egyptian TV host who played a clip of the movie trailer and railed against it on his show. It did not take long for misplaced outrage to spread like wildfire. Images of protesters burning American flags and destroying property left an indelibly negative impression of Muslims. Regardless of how offensive, it is unconscionable that an amateurish video could lead to the death of innocent people. U.S. Ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens' death was particularly jarring; although it now appears that the Libya attacks may have had less to do with the film.

Condemnations by Muslim leaders against the violence could not compete for airtime with images of burning buildings and mob fury. Counter-demonstrations in Libya, which involved mainstream Muslims refusing to allow extremists to substitute their form of tyranny for that of the repressive regime from which they recently gained freedom, were barely noticed and not enough to stem the simple narrative, which Newsweek further sensationalized with its cover story titled, "Muslim Rage." Most commentators failed to acknowledge that Muslims in America showed appreciable restraint.

In contrast, the Iranian Foreign Ministry sharply criticized the U.S. government's response to the film, even though the U.S. government had nothing to do with the independently produced film and had no legal basis to take action other than to condemn the film, which it did. Interestingly, the film's producer is now subject to criminal sanctions for parole violations arising out of other matters.

The newly elected Egyptian President Morsi initially failed to condemn the violence and demanded that the U.S. government prosecute those associated with the film. He later changed his tack. Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan portrayed balance when saying, "Legal and peaceful protest by Muslims is a useful and correct thing; but a protest cannot envisage any kind of violence or terrorism." However he, like many others, failed to point out the limits of the United States government's authority to act when free speech rights are exercised.

Understanding is a two-way street. Muslims should not be so quick to complain when others demonstrate their lack of respect for Islam if they fail to make any real progress towards understanding the societal norms of other nations, in this instance the complexity of free speech rights and traditions in the United States. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects both freedom of speech and free exercise of religion. In other words, a Muslim's right to freely practice his or her religion in America is derived from the same constitutional clause that protects the right of others to express their anti-Islam views.

Over the past decade, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, an international body comprised primarily of 57 majority Muslim countries, has been advocating for laws against the defamation of religion. Several countries, including some in the West, place limits on free speech when it is deemed blasphemous or denies the Holocaust, which has engendered worldwide debate about the implications of free speech. In the United States the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution generally prohibits such laws; however, American courts have consistently held that shouting fire in a crowded theater, if there is no fire, exceeds the bounds of free speech.

In an increasingly interdependent world where diverse populations are linked by social media and 24 hour news cycles, the extent to which defaming religion may be analogous to shouting fire in a crowded theater is a debate worth having. But any such debate is less likely against the backdrop of extremists displaying not only a lack of respect for other cultures but also ignorance about the pluralistic and free-speech traditions within Islam.

Parvez Ahmed, is a Fulbright Scholar and associate professor at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville. He also is Director of The Center for Sustainable Business Practices.

Mark Schlakman is a lawyer, former foreign affairs officer and serves as senior program director at The Florida State University Center for Advancement of Human Rights in Tallahassee.

Crossposted at the Tamba Bay Times.