Choosing Hatred: Thoughts on ‘The Innocence of Muslims’ and Free Expression
On September 12, 2012, the U.S. embassy in Benghazi, Libya was attacked. The building was set fire, and four were killed, including U.S. ambassador Chris Stevens. This came after days of protest in North Africa and the Middle East over a fourteen-minute Youtube trailer for Innocence of Muslims. The film, which portrays Mohammed’s life, is a poorly made and insulting satire of the Islamic faith. If you wish to make your own judgment of the portrayal, the video link can be found here.
Pakistani Prime Minister Ashraf recently commented, “Let me make it absolutely clear: this is not about freedom of expression, this is more about hatred.” Ashraf wants to move the U.N. to pass a resolution banning ‘blasphemous hate speech.’ So, is hatred not a valid form of expression?
It seems that some Muslim protesters around the world are engaging in expressions of hatred. Maybe they wouldn’t classify burning American flags, violently protesting outside of embassies, or ending and endangering countless lives as hatred. But then, who gets to classify what speech is hateful and what isn’t?
Ashraf later said, “If denying the Holocaust is a crime, then is it not fair and legitimate for Muslims to demand that denigrating and demeaning Islam’s holiest personality is no less a crime?” For Muslims, Mohammed’s holy life is a historical fact, and denying that fact is criminal. So, does freedom of expression mean we can’t challenge or deny another group’s beliefs without being called a hateful criminal?
The dangerous notion of force is hidden in the rhetoric of those who wish to qualify freedom of expression in this way. Eventually, someone, or some group, chooses what we are, and are not, allowed to express. But there isn’t another option for many Muslims. As Ashraf put it, “Our faith remains incomplete without total devotion and reverence to the Holy Prophet Muhammad.” Basically, there will be violence until you stop people from questioning our faith, as is required by the Qur’an. This position eventually amounts to: “You stay quiet about the things we call sacred, otherwise it’s hate, and hate is (will be) illegal.”
It must be agreed upon, before we move further, that the creators of this film did not create violence. Violence is not a necessary response to any expression. Only the receivers of the message, those who choose to qualify the film as hateful, give the rhetorical expression its destructive capabilities. To call something hateful is to make it hateful. If they decide something means to criticize the Muslim faith, it instantly becomes hate, which must be forcibly repressed.
But the protesters don’t see it that way. For them, what is considered hatred is already determined, somewhere outside of the expression, in the guidelines of their holy text. There is no reason to have a conversation with the world about what Islam means to them, because the meaning of Islam is not something to be decided; it’s self-evident, determined by the text that guides their lives. There is no choice, no interpretation, and thus, no rhetoric.
And that’s the crux of it. Speech cannot be repressed without resorting to violence, ending choice, ending conversation, ending lives. Hate becomes an inevitable consequence of any expression that doesn’t conform to the standards outlined by Ashraf, or Islam, or the U.N. The protesters want to believe that the label of hatred is already a part of any message that is against their own, allowing them to shirk responsibility for their actions. How can we blame them when ”What is hate?” is decided up above? And to question that kind of decision is to ask for a visceral, destructive response of force.
The effects of this film are still being felt. Reports of protests from around the world are still coming in; the death toll rises higher and higher. It’s worth noting that many Muslims have come out against these acts of violence and anger. No religion speaks or acts as one. I just wish words of peace held the immense power that those of hatred have been given.
If you want to know more:
- You can find an overview of the protests here and some coverage of Ashraf’s speech here.
- There has been some interesting conversation about banning “hate” in the UN Assembly.
- Burke’s The Rhetoric of Religion examines the words we use about words in theology in order to gain insight into our use of language in general. His “Epilogue: Prologue in Heaven” examines a conversation between The Lord and Satan, in which discussion of the “ineffable” focuses on the idea of perfection in our symbol systems. The Lord says, “Even the most misguided of absolutism is perfectionist, for instance. And, the principle of perfection will be at work in all reductionism and in all exaggeration, thus in both euphemism and its opposite; for the two most perfect functions of symbolism are total praise and total dispraise.” -Burke’s Rhetoric of Motives discusses the idea of “identification” saying that you must first align yourself with the audience’s identity, seeming as if you are like them, in order to persuade them. Does either group (protesters or the filmmakers) even attempt identification? If not, could the intent have been persuasion, or can we assume instigation?
Christopher Brown is an MA student in Rhetoric at Carnegie Mellon University.