A Perspective on Free Speech and Common Sense

Published November 28, 2012

By Leslie Schaffer

As protests against the anti-Islam film spread throughout the Muslim world, information has become available about the man behind “Innocence of Muslims.” Nakoula Basseley Nakoula is a convicted criminal, twice for drug offences and more recently for financial fraud for obtaining credit cards using fake identities and then taking tens of thousands of dollars from those accounts. He also owes unpaid taxes and failed to make required payments after filing for bankruptcy twelve years ago. As to the film in question, Nakoula misled the cast and crewmembers, 79 of whom have issued a statement condemning his deceit, that they were “shocked by the drastic rewrites of the script and lies that were told to all involved.” Further, they were “deeply saddened by the tragedies that have occurred.” Nakoula has used numerous aliases over the years including the name “Sam Bacile” in connection with the film. He at first lied about his identity after chaos broke out in the Muslim world, falsely claiming that he was an Israeli
Jew and that he had collected $5 million from Jewish donors to produce the movie. This is the man, a defrauder, who wants to warn the world about Islam, calling it a “cancer,” who claims that he has read 3000 books about Islam.

Whether Muslims are comfortable or not with the reality, the true battle of ideas in the world today occurs through the voicing of, and dialogue about, those ideas, through the vehicle of freedom of expression

Then there is Pamela Geller. Her group, Stop the Islamization of America (SIOA), co-founded with Robert Spencer, tried to patent their organization’s trademark. The U.S. patent office rejected their application because it “refers to Muslims in a disparaging manner,” implying that “conversion or conformity to Islam is something that needs to be stopped or caused to cease.” SIOA is running an ad campaign now that reads “In the war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. Support Israel, defeat jihad.” It has been running on San Francisco busses and is set to begin showing in New York City subways. The Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights organization dedicated to fighting hate and bigotry, says that Geller “is the anti-Muslim movement’s most visible and flamboyant figurehead. She’s relentlessly shrill and coarse in her broad-brush denunciations of Islam and makes preposterous claims, such as that President Obama is the “love child” of Malcolm X.” The transit companies in both
San Francisco and New York City have struggled with whether to permit the ad campaign.

Here’s the point: whether Muslims are comfortable or not with the reality, the true battle of ideas in the world today occurs through the voicing of, and dialogue about, those ideas, through the vehicle of freedom of expression. If Nakoula and Geller and their ilk were not permitted by law to voice their vitriolic ideas, the poison would go underground and find expression in covert ways. Just as Muslims who wanted to make dawah in a nation that obstructed their right to do so would find ways to spread the word nonetheless. And social, political, or religious energies that are forced into furtive, illicit assemblies often are empowered and galvanized, taking on more stubborn resistance to being stopped or silenced.

Balancing Free Speech Protecting Civil Society

In the Muslim world, the protection of free speech does not extend to sacrilege or blasphemy. In the pluralistic world we live in, utterly interconnected, democracies are messy, raucous, and laborious in working their way toward a proper balance of protecting free speech and protecting civil society. To illustrate how dicey it gets, consider a case from 2010 which made its way to the Supreme Court. In Snyder v. Phelps, the family of a homosexual marine killed in Afghanistan sued the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas for emotional pain after church members demonstrated during their son’s funeral, carrying signs that read, “Thank God for dead soldiers”; “Fag sin = 9-11”; “Thank God for IEDs.”; “God hates fags”; and “You’re going to hell.” The court, while noting the repugnance of the Westboro group’s decision to picket at a funeral, ruled in favor of the church, noting that the church members complied with all city statutes regarding picketing, committed no violence, stayed in an area 1,000 feet away from the church where the funeral was held per police instructions, and that they were, through their demonstration, addressing an issue of public debate on public land. The court’s decision pivoted on the First Amendment guarantee that reflects “a profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open.” And that is because “speech concerning public affairs is more than self-expression; it is the essence of self-government.”

One should respect another person’s religion because they should respect that person’s being, autonomy, and dignity

The Supreme Court over the years has rejected an interpretation of First Amendment rights without limits, but the exclusions to protection are quite narrow. Speech that is intended to provoke violence or incite unlawful acts, libel and slander, obscenity (differentiated from “indecent”), and speech that conflicts with legitimate social or governmental interests such as national security — all these are considered as limiting conditions on freedom of speech. The film under discussion is clearly “libelous” in nature. The legal standard of what constitutes libelous material is that which is published in “writing or broadcast through radio, television or film, an untruth about another which will do harm to that person or his/her reputation, by tending to bring the target into ridicule, hatred, scorn or contempt of others. Libel is the written or broadcast form of defamation, distinguished from slander which is oral defamation.” However, legal protection against libel in the U.S. does not extend to the deceased. Also the film would not be considered hate speech as it does not fall into the category of such speech that is outside the protection of the First Amendment — face-to-face epithets, or “fighting words” (intending to incite or encouraging imminent unlawful violence).

All Suppressions Side by Side on the Table

Repugnant speech is protected, so says that ruling in Snyder v. Phelps, in order that “public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open.” But what an imperfect union is this United States of America. Working out this issue of free speech, like most other progress toward fairness and equity, is two steps forward and one step back.

Defending the Prophet (peace be upon him) in ways that contravene his teachings, his life, and his manner of dealing with and responding to offenses against God

Consider a legislative resolution — H.R. 35: “Relative to anti-Semitism”— passed in August by the California State Assembly with support by a majority of both Republicans and Democrats. This resolution urges state educational institutions to put in place strict and aggressive measures to limit criticism of Israel on campuses, defining such criticism as “anti-Semitism.” This includes “language or behavior [that] demonizes and delegitimizes Israel;” any “speakers, films, and exhibits” that suggest that “Israel is guilty of heinous crimes against humanity such as ethnic cleansing and genocide;” describing Israel as a “racist” or “apartheid” state; promoting “student-and faculty-sponsored boycott, divestment, and sanction campaigns against Israel;” and other so-called “anti-Semitic” speech or action.

It’s easy to see that this resolution is no buttress of the principle of “uninhibited, robust, and wide-open” debate of public issues. It is, and intends to be, an obstruction of freedom of expression. It should be vigorously protested by all people who view such suppression as a step on the path to fascistic denial of free speech. Democracy cannot survive in such conditions.

The irony here is that there is a long-standing campaign to stifle criticism of Judaism, Jews, and Israel. The denouncing of someone as “anti-Semitic” is a tool of suppression that is widely used and extremely effective. According to all Muslims, many well-informed individuals in the U.S., most Europeans, and growing numbers of Jewish people, the historical record and ongoing policies of Israeli occupation are racist, apartheid, and in violation of international law.

The factual evidence of that is found in the documentary record of U.N. resolutions, the annals of human rights watch groups going back decades including Israeli peace groups such as Gush Shalom, and the documentations of countless researchers and writers. Still, people with differing backgrounds and differing worldviews see the “evidence” in differing ways.

Entitled to Respect and Deserving of Voice

Likewise is the case of religion that people with differing backgrounds and differing worldviews see things in differing ways. Since the majority of human beings believe what they are taught as children to be “the truth” and continue to follow that religious tradition as adults (meaning that they do not see your tradition as “the truth”), we have to see the public forum of ideas as a level field where each ideology and belief system is treated as equally allowable, equally entitled to respect, and equally deserving of voice in the public discourse. That reality — that each person believes his or her religion is “the truth” — and that requisite equality (assumptive, in principle, for the sake of unfettered argument) of all ideas, viewpoints, opinions, beliefs, doctrines, traditions — means that in a pluralistic public forum suppressing criticism and opposition to Islam is no different from suppressing criticism and opposition to Israel.

And since as the Qur’an teaches, “there is no compulsion in religion,” not only is it impermissible to coerce someone to convert to Islam, it is equally unacceptable and fundamentally irrational to demand that a person believe that Islam is the truth. If he does not believe that Islam is the truth, then he is perfectly within his right to believe anything he wants about Islam. Just as a Muslim can believe whatever he wants about Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, Mormonism, or any other religion. Oh, you say, but Muslims respect Judaism and Christianity as they are the religions of “People of the Book.” So go ask a Jewish person if saying that his rabbis changed God’s word, or that the Jews are not the “chosen people” who alone and forever are favored by God, feels very respectful to him. Or ask a Christian person if asserting that Jesus is only a human being and that it’s blasphemous to call him God, that Christians are polytheists, comes across to him as respectful.

In a pluralistic public forum where all ideas, beliefs, and traditions are equally allowable, equally entitled to respect, and equally deserving of voice, some, thankfully, become discredited. In contemporary America, ideas such as white supremacy, the inferiority of women, the perception of Native American Indians as barbaric and primitive, and many other viewpoints have been brought to disrepute in the public’s mind. And on the religious front, the People’s Temple of Jim Jones, the Hare Krishna organization, the Unification Church of Sun Myung Moon, the Ku Klux Klan, Heaven’s Gate, and the Branch Davidians – all have been revealed to be cults that rightfully garnered disgrace and public disregard.

If there is no compulsion in religion, then an individual even has the right to hate religion or mock religion, all of them or the one of his choice. It may be considered politically incorrect, morally distasteful and offensive, ill-mannered, narrow-minded, and emotionally immature. But it is part of free speech in a pluralistic society and world community.

Now it’s true that the Nakoula film is boorish, inflammatory, and supremely ignorant in its defamation of Islam and Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). But we’re right back, full circle, to the point of where to draw the line in allowing freedom of speech – only from the intelligent or educated, the well-intentioned and mannerly, the high-minded and judicious?

Respecting a Person’s Autonomy & Dignity

No one should denigrate another’s religion, not because it is “the truth” since, as already noted, there are innumerable others who believe that some other tradition is “the truth.” One should respect another person’s religion because they should respect that person’s being, autonomy, and dignity. But some human beings are more mature than others. They naturally respect any other person’s chosen belief system. They know that like his own chosen religion, it is important in their life, dear to the heart, and a means to find meaning, purpose, and solace in this difficult world.

There are those, of course, who will mock. So how should a Muslim respond to those who mock Islam? The Qur’an says, “And, indeed, He has already revealed to you in the Book that whenever you hear people deny the truth of God’s messages and mock them, you shall avoid their company [of friendship and companionship] until they begin to talk of other things — or else, verily, you will become like them…” (Qur’an 4: 140). This verse does not tell Muslims to blame an entire nation for the mockery put forward by one person, to burn down the mocker’s house, to take to the streets in rage. In fact, another verse says, “It may be that God will grant love between you and those whom you [now] hold as enemies. For God has power; and God is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful” (Qur’an 60:7). And in another verse, “The good deed and the evil deed are not alike. Repel the evil deed with one which is better. Then the one, who between you and him was enmity, might become as your true friend” (Qur’an 61:34).

If we want to put things in a balanced perspective and observe absolute intellectual integrity, we also have to ask if any Muslim anywhere ever mocked or denigrated the sacred persons, places, artifacts, or symbols of other religions. It needs to be phrased that way – “any Muslim anywhere ever” because the violent protests were against the film which was made by one Coptic Christian Egyptian-American who does not represent anyone but himself. There are, in fact, enough cases of a Muslim or group of Muslims denigrating another religion to put feelings of Muslim self-righteous uniquely victimized indignation where they belong — put in perspective, put in a proper and accurate view of reality so that double standards are eschewed.

No Equivalently Offending Deed

Some Muslims think that if non-Muslims offend or aggress against them in any sort of way, that they are sanctioned to do an equivalently offending or aggressive deed. Beside the above-cited verse about repelling the evil deed with something better, and the hadith “There should be neither harming nor reciprocating harm” (Ibn Majah and others), one can simply use a logical argument. If a non-Muslim army used rape as a weapon of war, should Muslim men rape women during wartime? Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) said, “Accustom yourselves to do good if people do good, and to not do wrong even if they commit evil.” In fact, even with regard to armed conflict, the Prophet (pbuh) put in place many guidelines including the following:

  • “Do not kill any child, any woman, or any elder or sick person.” (Sunan Abu Dawud)
  • “Do not practice treachery or mutilation. Do not uproot or burn palms or cut down fruitful trees. Do not slaughter a sheep or a cow or a camel, except for food.” (Al-Muwatta)
  • “Do not kill the monks in monasteries, and do not kill those sitting in places of worship. (Musnad Ahmad Ibn Hanbal)
  • “Do not destroy the villages and towns, do not spoil the cultivated fields and gardens, and do not slaughter the cattle.” (Sahih Bukhari; Sunan Abu Dawud)
  • “Do not wish for an encounter with the enemy; pray to God to grant you security; but when you [are forced to] encounter them, exercise patience.” (Sahih Muslim)
  • “No one may punish with fire except the Lord of Fire.” (Sunan Abu Dawud)

Repelling the evil deed with something better, that there should be no harm or reciprocating harm, that even during armed conflict one must adhere to ethical guidelines — these are all principles clearly and compellingly taught by Islam. There is a powerful story about Ali (may Allah be pleased with him). During a battle, he was engaged man-to-man with a combatant and had him down on the ground. Just at the moment he was about to kill him, the man spit in Ali’s face. Ali stopped with sword in midair, drew back and released the man. He felt a personal repulsion toward this individual when he was spit in his face. Killing him, in that case, would not be purely for the sake of Allah (SWT). It would have been out of the lower self, the ego. This is exquisite self-awareness and self-control!

Self-Governance and Self-Examination

Imams and community leaders should guide to the surpassing self-governance and the self-examination required to achieve such an elevated state of mind, heart, and soul demonstrated by Ali (RAA). They should not inflame passions or act as provocateurs of rage. Their exhortations should be to go home and purify the intention and when one is sure he or she is acting solely for the sake of Allah SWT, not out of ego with its anger, resentment, and bitterness at the vexing politics of the world, then to take some action, some judicious action, to protest the anti-Islam film. Certainly those who took to the streets in outrage over the film are regular human beings, Muslims who try to follow their religion. But in the final analysis, they did not spend enough time thinking about whether their manner of protesting, their willingness to perpetrate violence and destruction, is Islamically sanctioned and wise; or whether it’s contrary to common sense and logic, fundamentally counter-productive, and a missed opportunity.

We have to take into account that Muslims have pent up anger toward the Israeli occupation and American foreign policy. Understandable. Emphatically so. But as we have seen in the above-cited verses and hadith, that is no excuse for un-Islamic behavior. Defending the Prophet (peace be upon him) in ways that contravene his teachings, his life, and his manner of dealing with and responding to offenses against God, His signs, the Divine message, and the Prophet himself, is nothing other than hypocritical folly. And it is completely counterproductive in that it demonstrates the exact stereotypical behaviors that feed the Islamophobic frenzy.

The demeanor of one who believes, who is firm in belief and secure in the truth of that belief, conveys a confidence and equilibrium that is not easily thrown off center. When a Bedouin urinated in the masjid, some companions of the Prophet rushed toward him as if to punish him. The Prophet (pbuh) told them to leave him alone to finish. He then called the man over and said to him, “Urine or any kind of filth is not suitable for the masjid. They [masjids] are for the remembrance of Allah, prayer, and recitation of the Qur’an” (Saheeh Muslim). There are so many accounts of offenses and abuses toward the Prophet — placing thorny branches in his path, putting an animal’s entrails in front of his house, or trash by his door — all of which he responded to with calm, forbearance, and leniency.

Words that Rally Against Bigotry/Blasphemy

One last point relates to Muslims living in America. They love the guarantee of free speech when it allows them to openly practice Islam, to make dawah, to critically analyze and express Islamic viewpoints about Christianity and Judaism and other religions, and to openly condemn American foreign policy. If we love free speech, then let us use that right, and with the gift of communication and its power of persuasion, counter repugnant ideas like the one’s in Nakoula’s film with its many false and malicious statements about Islam and Prophet Muhammad (pbuh).

Obama addressed the U.N. General Assembly on September 25th. He said, “I know there are some who ask why we don’t just ban such a video. The answer is enshrined in our laws: our Constitution protects the right to practice free speech. Here in the United States, countless publications provoke offense. Like me, the majority of Americans are Christian, and yet we do not ban blasphemy against our most sacred beliefs. Americans have fought and died around the globe to protect the right of all people to express their views — even views that we disagree with. We do so not because we support hateful speech, but because our Founders understood that without such protections, the capacity of each individual to express their own views, and practice their own faith, may be threatened. We do so because in a diverse society, efforts to restrict speech can become a tool to silence critics or oppress minorities. We do so because given the power of faith in our lives, and the passion that religious differences can inflame, the strongest weapon against hateful speech is not repression, it is more speech — the voices of tolerance that rally against bigotry and blasphemy, and lift up the values of understanding and mutual respect.”

The courageous people of Benghazi held up signs such as “Thugs and killers don’t represent Benghazi nor Islam”; “Islam against terrorism”; “Sorry people of America, this [is] not the behavior of our Islam and profit [Prophet].” One can imagine a similarly high-minded response that Muslims around the world could have demonstrated after the film trailer became known. This would provide a most compelling rebuttal to the egregious and recklessly false claims made about Islam and Prophet Muhammad (pubh): the image of thousands of Muslims coordinated in a worldwide demonstration, no tens of thousands, using “the strongest weapon against hateful speech” — a good and honorable word; holding high with courage and dignity, like the people of Benghazi, signs that read:

  • “God loves those who are just.” Qur’an 5:42
  • “God loves those who foster purity.” Qur’an 9:108
  • “O you who believe! Be God-conscious! And be with those who are truthful.” Qur’an 9:119
  • “Repel the evil deed with one which is better.” Qur’an 41:34
  • “Let not a people’s enmity incite you to act other than with justice. Qur’an 5:9
  • “There should be neither harming nor reciprocating harm.” – Prophet Muhammad
  • “Be upholders of justice…even against yourselves or your parents and relatives.” Qur’an 4:135
  • “Humankind! We created you from a male and female, and made you into peoples and tribes so that you might come to know one another. Qur’an 49:13
  • “The most honored of you in the sight of Allah is the one with virtue.” Qur’an 49:13

Those are the words of wisdom that rally against bigotry and blasphemy, inspiring us to pursue the common good through engagement, with mutual understanding and respect.

“Do you not see how God sets forth a parable? A good word like a good tree, whose root is firmly fixed, and its branches (reach) to the heavens it brings forth its fruit at all times, by the permission of its Lord. So God sets forth parables for people, in order that they may receive admonition” (Qur’an, 14:24-25).

Leslie SchafferAuthor Leslie Schaffer embraced Islam in 1979. She and Br.Kamal Shaarawy provide counseling for Muslim individuals, couples, and families. A full collection of their writings can be found on

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