Skip to content

Choosing Hatred: Thoughts on ‘The Innocence of Muslims’ and Free Expression

September 30, 2012

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.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. Susan Ryan permalink
    October 1, 2012 11:13 pm

    Chris, I think that there is in here an interesting question about whether or not speech is really “free” or if us thinking speech is “free” sets the stage for relationships defined by hatred or violence. And I think that the broad question about hate speech’s place in our public discourses is an interesting one…But something worth noting: you’ve made some fairly disconcerting suggestions about the Qur’ran. Islam does not instruct Muslims to engage in violence until their religion goes unquestioned. In fact, it urges tolerance of the non-believers, welcoming disagreement (see 109)–“To you, your beliefs, and to me, mine.” The violent passages of the Qur’ran actually refer to violence in response to violence (“persecution is worst than slaying non-believers”). This is not the same context as being violent in response to a strictly rhetorical act. And what are you referring to when you refer to violence? The term is never clearly defined…You have implied that the protestors of the video are violent through acts such as burning the American flag, but you seem to categorize the video that stirred controversy as the anti-violent (or as the rhetorical). How have you made these distinctions? Are we rejecting the notion of “violent words” or “violence incited?” Because certainly, hate speech is considered a bed-fellow to violence, both in terms of the wounds it opens and in terms of the action it produces. In this sense, the video can very much be considered violent and I’m not convinced that “it must be agreed upon” that the creators of the film are not creating (or have not created) violence. Are we rejecting a long-standing rhetorical tradition that examines the relationship between violence and rhetoric?

  2. October 2, 2012 10:19 am

    By “free” speech, I mean that speech does not require anything from any audience. That is, we choose to give what power we do to words, we are not forced to obey, believe, or act. In this sense, we are trying to prevent force, which can be violence, that comes from not-free speech (commands like “listen and obey, or die”).

    I haven’t made any notions about the Qur’an, only about specific interpretations of it, hence the use of “our faith” directly before my only mention of the text itself. You would be hard-pressed to convince the protestors that the particular ayat you pulled out weighs against their distaste for the video, which to them is violent, forceful, and hateful. But it is worth noting that this text, any text, can be interpreted peacefully, hatefully, fantastically, logically, personally, etc.

    And this goes to the heart of things once again, can an interpretation be “disconcerting” or “distasteful” in itself, or it it just a decision we make about it?

    I have reserved the word violence, here, for force. That is, physically moving someone to act. As in war, or holding a flame to a building, or a gun to someone’s head. Sure, you can say that the video was ‘hate-mongering’ and that it ‘incited’ violence, but it didn’t. The interpreters, those responding, gave that video its power over them.

    To decide that the video, in itself, is imbued with violent power gives those who want to limit our freedom to speak a wonderful but of evidence. But the fact is, each person who was moved to force someone else to recognize their beliefs chose to do so. They each gave power to that video.

  3. Susan Ryan permalink
    October 2, 2012 11:15 am

    Thanks, Chris, that helps clarify things. But I think the implications of what you’re trying to argue would suggest that hate speech has nothing to do with hate crimes. Or, lets say, Hitler’s words had nothing to do with the violence that transpired in WWII. Of course, violent words do not inevitably resort to violent action, but there are too many important arguments in our tradition that consider hate speech as a type of violence, both in the sense that it causes physical pain/hurt and in the sense that it can incite violent action. A consequence of denying this is to remove all responsibility from the speaker and to eschew a vast amount of literature on ethics and rhetoric. It would mean to divorce rhetoric from action, and to call expression–hateful or peaceful–“merely words.” A question I ask you to consider: What are the costs to understating the power of words and the ways they inform our actions?

    • October 3, 2012 12:31 am

      I agree with “violent words do not inevitably resort to violent action” and that they “can incite violent action.” I’m not denying that Hitler’s speeches inspired many men to join the Third Reich and vote for him. But he didn’t force them to join, either (although, in many ways, he did physically force the election and German families to submit).

      I’m suggesting that the rhetorical power of a word is given (though, perhaps, not consciously) when we align our own meanings with that of the speaker’s. This alignment is not forced on the audience. The words of the speaker do not invoke any response by necessity (though, we might say that a response is predictable based on context). I’m not denying the connection between rhetoric and action, nor am I denying that the intent of both Hitler and this filmmaker was a violent one.

      Of course humanity is moved to action by powerful words, but a particular action or a particular meaning (of hate) is not necessarily derived from the rhetoric. You can call it hate speech all you want, but calling it hate doesn’t mean it is inherently so. You might say “If it inspires violent hateful actions, hate crimes, it’s hate speech.” But all you’ve done is told me what some culture calls a message, the interpretation they chose to act on.

      And to suggest (as Ashraf does) that hate speech could be banned because it “causes” violence, well we might as well go home. What is a rhetorician’s job in a world where meaning is known at the moment of utterance?

      I’m implicating both the speaker, who chose rhetoric that might instigate a fight, and the listener, who chose to light the match. Both are culpable, but both began with mere words, and imbued them with power when they allowed ideas, words to drive them to action.

  4. October 3, 2012 12:18 am

    To me one of the distressing things about this conflict isn’t just the matter of free speech vs hate speech, but just a global sense of ‘Othering’ from every side. The filmmaker made Muslims into these horribly misguided and violent Others, Ashraf exacerbated the divide between Islam and Judaism (which smacks of the usual claim of Western audiences privileging a Jewish or Israeli view), and now the protesters are just another kind of ‘Other’ — anonymous, violent and seen as representations of a conglomeration of things: Muslim, young, terrorist, radical, and (perhaps most importantly) not Western.

    Free speech just ‘feels’ like a very Western ideal to me, so imposing that globally on a part of the world with such a different culture is uncomfortable to me. It’s one thing to want to impose human rights so that violations like abuse and honor-killings don’t happen, but I wonder if the US or other world leaders will really want to put their two-cents in when legislation comes out that will actively punish ANYONE seen as promoting ideas at odds with the prevalent views of the radical Muslim state.

  5. Susan Ryan permalink
    October 3, 2012 10:00 am

    Chris, you might like to read Burke’s essay on persuasion/force/coercion.

    If this was an argument that asserts that there is such a thing as interpretation, and that we are, to some extent, free agents in the act of interpreting, then I see. But there is a risk at over-determining interpretation. In other words, when I mentioned you were removing responsibility from the speaker, I meant that you are claiming in this post that an-Anti-Muslim video is only hate speech because a certain group deemed it, implying that therefore, that it can be interpreted in a completely different way and given a different meaning. Sure. Except some interpretations are better than others; some ring closer to the heart of a text. Some interpretations are wrong. There is not an endless ocean of meaning that can be given to a text and while there is a multitude, not all meanings are created equal. If you ever teach literature or rhetoric/composition or public speaking and assign a response essay, you’ll discover the truth of this very quickly.

    Whether or not a rhetorical act necessarily calls for violence or whether or not a rhetorical act is necessarily violent is an interesting question, and it may not be so cut and dry; in other words, there is abound plenty of scholarship that suggests that some expressions do not only compel, but necessitate violence. Marx, Marcuse, Lukacs, Benjamin, and Arendt would all complicate the assumption that violence is the anti-rhetorical, and (especially within the Frankfurt School), violence (physical force, rebellion, and violent speech) may very well be a necessary response. I’m actually undecided on this stance, but it’s a stance important to read up on when considering the connection between rhetoric and violence.

    • October 3, 2012 2:05 pm

      The video can be given a different meaning. It can be seen as silly, or amateurish, or empty, or farcical, or beautiful, or angry, or right, or wrong, or good, or bad. You say “some (interpretations) ring closer to the heart of the text,” And how is the heart determined? Do we ask the author’s intention? Is his answer going to be the litmus test for the ‘rightness’ of interpretation? Or maybe we examine his previous discourse? But we eventually make decisions about what he meant. We can’t know, with certainty, his intent, so we decide.

      “Some interpretations are wrong.” Wrong for who? Wrong, as in, opposite the author’s intent? Wrong, as in, out of a particular context? Well, sure, we could say an interpretation doesn’t take into account the context we see, or the context Muslim’s see, or the context of the author sees. But these contexts, too, are interpreted.

      “If you ever teach…” I don’t teach my students that their interpretations are wrong, or ‘far from the heart,’ because it doesn’t teach them anything. What I do teach them is how their speech interacts with other interpretations, relating other perceptions and context to their own, without evaluating their epistemological weight (which I see as unascertainable, except when relatively defined as ‘correct for someone’). We can see a speech from many perspectives, of which one might be widely held. We can look at an interpretation in terms of the actions that might or do come from it, without resorting to how ‘close’ it is to some ‘true’ meaning.

      To understand words as carrying meaning alone, devoid of interpretation, is to give words the power of physical force.

      If there were a word that, at the moment of its utterance, caused people to convulse in pain upon hearing it, we would be obligated to make this utterance illegal. How could we not? It’s power would be immense, and nations would fight with this kind of magic.

      And that is how Ashraf and his friends see words against the Prophet; as primarily hateful, regardless of interpretation. But there are no words that work this way. However, acting as if they do is what got us here in the first place.


  1. Syria and Persuasive Force | The Silver Tongue

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: