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.