Behind the Scenes of the “Innocence of Muslims”


Freshta Raoufi

There have been a growing number of violent acts and protests in opposition to the film Innocence of Muslims by Nakoula Basseley Nakoula.  As the film gained publicity around the world, riots and demonstrations began to take place.  Why did the demonstrations become so pervasive? This complex question leads to multiple different explanations and contributing factors.  The resistance against the movie spread extensively as a result of two key policy factors: the United States government’s response and (in)action; and the power of private entities in undermining global cooperation.

Hate Speech vs. Freedom of Speech

On September 13, U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton released a statement condemning both the acts of violence and the movie itself.  She stated the movie is “reprehensible and disgusting,” however, violence as a response to the movie, and especially violence against diplomatic missions, is not justified.  The protesters demanded that the United States government remove the movie from YouTube immediately; however, Hilary Clinton’s response reiterated the significance of the constitutionally embedded value of freedom of speech.  She claimed that it is not the role of the government to stop individuals from expressing their own opinions. 

Further research suggests that the United States rarely deems cases, such as the film Innocence of Muslims, to be hate speech.  Broader United States foreign policy concerns or international repercussions of domestic events are unlikely to incite a change in domestic laws with regards to hate speech versus freedom of speech.  Compared to other liberal democracies, which are open to debate about the blurred line between the two concepts, the United States is relatively stern in this regard.  The political culture in the United States differs greatly in comparison to Canada, as American courts do not regularly punish what would be considered hate speech in Canada. Canada’s conception of hate speech is defined in section 319 of the Criminal Code. Section 319.2 forbids the willful promotion of hatred against any identifiable group, meaning “any section of the public distinguished by colour, race, religion, ethnic origin or sexual orientation.” In Canada, we have a separate section in the Criminal Code which clearly labels what would constitute as hate speech.  This leaves less room for discretionary decisions to be made based on external factors (for example, foreign relations with other nations). In the United States, the first Amendment identifies freedom of expression and speech.  Even though these freedoms could potentially lead to violence, such acts are seldom prosecuted under hate speech legislation.  This raises an important question for the United States.  Should expressions or announcements which lead to violence or silently evoke violence be prosecuted under hate speech?

Jeremy Waldron, a legal philosopher, claims that hate speech ultimately undermines the public good and leads to a dysfunctional society.  In the United States, abhorrent speech is allowed as long as the speaker does not threaten violence or encourage others to do so.  It has been clearly demonstrated in the case of the Innocence of Muslims that hatred has led to violent and deadly demonstrations.  This is problematic because the messages from the movie have provoked anger and resistance amongst the Muslim people.

In my view, the United States needs to broaden its foreign and domestic policy to adopt more inclusive and culturally appropriate measures.  With the United States’ increasing presence in the Middle East, Obama’s efforts to change the dynamics of the relationship between the U.S. and the Arab nations have to be thought out more carefully.  The United States has positioned itself as a friendly and cooperative world leader; to follow through on this image, American policymakers need to be more conscious of the decisions they make and how the outcomes of these decisions affect public opinion.  Public opinion and sentiments of citizens, both at home and abroad, are important because as in the case of the Innocence of Muslims, citizens are able to change the setting and course of action for the United States government.  Criminalizing this filmmaker’s actions would send a clear message to the rest of the world.

Global Expectations and the Hidden Role of Private Entities

After weeks of resistance, the United States changed its position to accommodate and respect the views of the Muslims by requesting a removal of the film from YouTube.  This is a position that was long overdue and should have been adopted from the get-go.  Could it really be that easy? Examining this issue with a policy lens gives way to even broader and more abstract implications.

Transnational companies now have to be more attentive to growing global concerns.  Google Inc. refused to remove the film as it complies with all rules and regulations of the company.  This raises the crucial issue of regulating and governing the cyber world in accordance to norms and standards of all societies.  This is a very difficult task as norms and cultural representations differ across the globe; however, a sense of morality and respect needs to be upheld to ensure global cooperation.  The public policy implication here is that a transnational company such as Google Inc. has to take into consideration local cultures and needs.

Global citizens see the United States as a major political actor that shapes policy.  Public expectation exceeds what is in the jurisdiction and power of the United States government.  Washington does not play a major role in regulating what is available on international media sites such as YouTube.  These companies have their own economic reasons, rationales and mandates that they must stand by in order to ensure the productivity of the company.  In my opinion, Google Inc.’s company policies can undermine peace and global cooperation.  At the same time it has the capability and capacity to foster political participation and engagement amongst citizens, as in the case of the Arab Spring.  Google Inc. claimed that the video fell within its guidelines as the video is against Islam but not against Muslim people and therefore not considered hate speech.  Google Inc. is respectful of the each country’s laws when it comes to broadcasting videos.  The clip was blocked from the site for those who were in Saudi Arabia since it was a clear violation of domestic laws.  Since the film does not fall under American hate speech legislation, the video is not in contradiction to any domestic laws.  Policy makers must be mindful of how domestic laws could be interpreted or used by transnational companies.

To conclude, there are many reasons why resistance has escalated in response to the film the Innocence of Muslims.  We can see very clearly that public policy and decisions have influence over the way people behave, regardless of borders.  Policy choices made by private entities also have broader implications on public behavior and expression.  It is important to recognize the larger forces behind public responses and to examine how the interplay between these forces generates reactions amongst global citizens.

Freshta Raoufi is a 2014 Master of Public Policy candidate at the School of Public Policy and Governance.  She also holds a HBA degree in Political Science and Women and Gender Studies from the University of Toronto.  She has worked in many organizations including the Afghan Women’s Organization, advocating to create programs where women can become independent economic agents.  Her interests surround the topics of immigration policy, international development, and women’s economic development in Third World countries. 

8 Comments Add yours

  1. James says:

    The Great irony of feable minded, blind liberalism: the US ought to weaken a fundamental right of democracy in order to keep infantile zealots from violent and deadly protest. On the one hand, you’re advocating a limit to free speech – a key liberal principle- while on the other you’re patronizing an entire part of the world by assuming the US knows better than violent Arabs.

    1. Freshta says:

      I would like to make something clear, I understand that freedom of speech/expression is a cornerstone of democracy. Firstly, the United States can learn from example in Canada. We give a different value and meaning to our fundamental freedom of expression. We are increasingly becoming a transnational world therefore we must become conscious and respectful of other peoples’ religions and cultures. If you would like to make yourself more aware about the situation and the motives behind why and how the movie was created I suggest you do more research. I am not defending the violent aspect of the protests at all. However, protest is a form of resistance. It is a very powerful tool individuals use to convey their thoughts. If you look at my points again you will find that I am not arguing about the violence of the protests rather the magnitude of it and how many different countries participated in the protests.

      There should be a limit to free speech because if there isn’t then we won’t be able to live together as a good, holistic society. It’s one thing to think something and another to promote it. This individual’s thoughts were presented through the form of a movie. There needs to be ethical standards in place to regulate the production of movies on sensitive topics, such as peoples’ religions.

      I don’t understand your point about patronizing an entire part of the world. I am not assuming that the U.S. Government knows more or less than “Arabs” as you refer to protesters. Let’s begin by discussing your choice of words. The protesters were comprised of people from Malaysia, Afghanistan, Tunisia, just to name a few. We cannot make an overgeneralized statement about the composition of protesters being “Arabs.” You are making a sweeping assumption here and stigmatizing an entire ethnic group of people. We need to move away from working against each other to accepting one another for who we are and recognizing our differences. There are new models of global governance which are emerging as we speak.

      1. DDA says:

        “I am not assuming that the U.S. Government knows more or less than “Arabs” as you refer to protesters. Let’s begin by discussing your choice of words. The protesters were comprised of people from Malaysia, Afghanistan, Tunisia, just to name a few. We cannot make an overgeneralized statement about the composition of protesters being “Arabs.””

        Thank you Freshta. Thank you.

  2. Al says:

    Great thought provoking article, but with which I fundamentally disagree. Two points: First, if all reprehensible, potential “hate-speech”, crude, and diststasful works of expression were to be criminalized, we’d still be building prisons for the near and long term forseable future. I can’t even begin to tell you the countless number of videos I have seen depicting other religious groups and their respective deities/dogmas/prophets/you name it… in the most barbaric ways on Youtube. Yet, and here I fully agree with James, in a healthy liberal democracy, these things are completely protected in their right to exist. In the particular US context, that right is granted by the 1st Amendment. The sacred – just like any other areas that interact with or impact public policy – ought be open for debate, discussion, criticism and yes, visceral satire. That which you are calling “hate speech” is nothing more than a mediocre attempt at satire. Should we then remove all the videos that depict Jesus as a homosexual (not that there would be anything wrong with that), or as a zombie who’s father has killed billions of people? What about videos portraying the pope (a beloved figured to billions of people globally) mating with the devil? Should we ban any all the cartoons that depict any of the beliefs purported in scared texts or reported as historical, just because they offend??? Offensive speech is different from hate speech. That fine line has to be drwan, yes. And i am glad that Canada allows for this concert via the Carter. But, I disagree with the desire to remove any and all things that criticize things that groups of people take as scared because this ability to self-criticize freely is what creates room for debates about things that frankly should be debated! The Enlightenment era ushered in an new epoch where Christianity and consorts could be openely debated and some of its notions ruthlessly challenged without the fear. Why should things be any different for Islam?… Not only do I disagree with calls to remove the video at stake here from the interwebs, I also do not even think that the same video should stand a chance of being crimilazed under the provisions of the Charter, had it been produced in a Canadian context. Second, If the movie at stake was an actual call to take up arms and start killing a certain group of people, then we’d be dealing with a different problem. But that is not the case here. This being said, islamophobia is real and is alive, particularly in a post 9/11 America. And it is possible that this movie could fuel some of the sentiments that oppress Muslims or distort how the majority of this religious community (in its broadest sense) is percieved. But, as you stated, the movie targets the religion. In my opinion, this is barely no grounds to call for its removal or legal action against its producer.

    1. Freshta says:

      Thank you for your comment, it has made me think about my position in more detail. I understand that hate speech or offensive speech targeted towards minority groups or identities are protected by the first amendment. However, I believe the United States needs to undergo reform when it comes to some of their laws in the Constitution. History affects the development of policies as well and I appreciate that American history is significantly different than Canada and some other European countries. I guess I’m a little bit of an idealist when it comes to social harmony nonetheless, I believe it is truly possible. Change will occur in increments in this case. This movie should have been tried at the judiciary level and evaluated as to whether or not it violated the free speech law. Freedom of speech should not be absolute. I agree with you that debate is healthy to a liberal democracy and also may set precedence in law. Some would argue that the movie is not based on facts rather describes the author’s feelings or emotions against Islam. However, this can be interpreted in another manner. Others may see the movie as testing or contradicting facts in the history of the religion.

      What really throws me off about this movie is why the producer decided to translate the movie into Egyptian Arabic, specifically, and upload it again on Youtube. This was done about a month after the movie was first displayed on Youtube. It initially did not attract any attention therefore, the Egyptian population was targeted as a potential audience. The producer had other motives in this case. He wanted to spark outrage amongst the Muslim dominated nations.

      Also, my point about the United States’ changing position in the international realm is important to consider when viewing this issue. United States’ relationship and involvement with the Middle East was previously minimal. They are becoming a greater international actor with more influence. This movie should have been reviewed by a judicial board from the very beginning. The U.S. needs to understand the scope of its foreign policy and how its effects impact the rest of the world. In this light, the Government did realize after a few weeks what they needed to do to stop curb the magnitude of the protests. They requested Google Inc. to take down the video. I believe this measure should have been taken immediately and the producer should have been reviewed by an independent review board. We know how important public opinion is in reacting to policy changes or intervention etc. We also know that public opinion is shaped by policy makers. This may sound contradictory however, it is very relevant and apparent in our society today. In this case, it would be perceived that the United States acted first in response to the movie. This could have changed the way in which the United States has been depicted in some of the protests. I understand that there are limitations to actions that the Government could and did take. Clearly transnational corporations play a major role in policy making and impose constraints. I have demonstrated this idea in the article above.

      In my personal view, the actions that were taken by the U.S. Government should have been executed sooner.

  3. Al says:

    Hi Freshta. Just to clarify, why should this movie be seen as an official declaration of provocation if it was not produced with the stamp of the US government or any of its official departments?? US citizens are free to express their interpretations of whatever they feel like. Freedom of speech is and should be absolute. Unless threats and calls to mass or targeted violence are made, any lunatic can and should SAY (or otherwise express) whatever they want. Why are these things so difficult to grasp? I hate to use slippery slope arguments, but surely you can see how monitoring every single measly youtube video, blogpost, tweet, etc. and then have things flagged and then independent committee formed ..then have reviewed ..and then cleared or not is absolutely impossible and downright scary! We can deal with opinions once thy are in the open. This one video should have been bypassed and forgotten in the coffers of the vortex that is the internet… As hurtful as the content of the video were, and as malevolent as its intent may have been, this stupid film (and I can’t even believe I am forced to defend things like that) ought to be allowed to stay. Let common sense prevail. Let people respond with words. Let arguments fly back and forth. Let us settle things in a civilized manner. I could not care less if it was translated in Hindu, Somali or Spanish! This is too low an excuse to explain the violent anger that ensued because of it. And believe me, I deeply understand the other socioeconomic and political sources of that anger from the beautiful Arab world, most of which stand from local frustrations in the face of the bloody US foreign policies. Again, there is room to discuss the needed reforms in this area. But please, let us not blame a youtube movie for this. By the way, there are regulations on these social networks, particularly with regards to copyrights and intellectual property concerns (capitalism oblige). But thank goodness, pretty much anyone can still express their mind in a free country such as the US. And that is a good thing.

  4. Freshta says:

    Hi Al, ok maybe I came off too strong in light of this argument. I completely agree with you that it is impossible to control or regulate every single video or comment that is expressed through means such as the internet. This is definitely not feasible and in my view, is a poor public policy choice. What I am trying to say about the transnational corporations is that if let’s say Governments want to make a policy choice there are so many other factors they have to consider. The average citizen, as in the individuals who took part in the protests, do not factor in the gravity of the situation and the political and economic actors involved. I don’t think these people (generalizing here of course) recognize the enormity of the problem. It is important to keep in our minds the constraints global media impose on individual Governments.

    I do grasp the concept of free speech. I am arguing that the U.S. Government should have changed its position because of its increasing involvement in the Middle East, if it wants to continue to impose its puppet governments in some countries. Upholding public opinion should be highly valued to the United States. Once public support decreases I believe this has a consequence on the actions of Governments.

    I recognize that there are other reasons why the protests have escalated. I am not ruling out other possibilities, don’t get the wrong idea. And I know that there are regulations that the global media networks must abide by however, the protesters demands were to take this movie down globally. This was something technically impossible!

    I am not blaming the Youtube video for anything, I am trying to look at the other side of global media as an entity which has its own purpose. With the Arab Spring we can see that social media has the capability to foster global cooperation and uprising against an oppressive regime. In the case of the movie, the U.S. Government wanted to change its position however, it faced issues with Google Inc. This is a very significant fact because people need to see the challenges Governments face when trying to change policy or law.

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