Attacks that left American diplomats and Libyan security officers fatally wounded have now been identified by Libyan and US intelligence as a “coordinated assault.” The planned attacks were hidden behind the cover of an angry mob upset about an inflammatory film that insulted the Prophet Muhammad. Regardless of whether the attack was premeditated or not — and whether Libyan security officers really did point out the safe house where Americans were hiding — the whole world is left with a very familiar question: where do we draw the line between freedom of expression and inciting violence?
Back in 2004 and 2005, when a Dutch film maker was assassinated for questioning the treatment of Islamic women and over one hundred protesters were killed after satirical cartoons were published in a Danish newspaper, the United States’ position was very clear. Said the State Department, “We all fully recognize and respect freedom of the press and expression but it must be coupled with press responsibility. Inciting religious or ethnic hatreds in this manner is not acceptable.”
This September, Hillary Clinton reaffirmed the United States’s commitment to freedom of respectful expression, this time adding a very important caveat:
There are, of course, different views around the world about the outer limits of free speech and free expression, but there should be no debate about the simple proposition that violence in response to speech is not acceptable. We all – whether we are leaders in government, leaders in civil society or religious leaders – must draw the line at violence. And any responsible leader should be standing up now and drawing that line.
With warships steaming toward Libya and US Marines reinforcing the ground security at the embassies, those of us who sit back and watch all of these events unfold have the answer to that question from before. Just where do we draw the line between freedom of expression and insinuating violence?
Quite simply, we don’t.
We don’t draw that line because there shouldn’t be a line. Regardless of what someone says about you or your religion, peace requires us to all understand and accept that each of us are entitled to basic fundamental rights, including the freedom to respectfully express ourselves. In Clinton’s remarks, she added, “As long as there are those who are willing to shed blood and take innocent life in the name of religion, the name of God, the world will never know a true and lasting peace,” and no truer words were ever spoken. Until we can learn that the problem with the film having been made is not that it disrespects the Prophet Muhammad but that people’s reactions were violent, how can we ever relieve ourselves of this perpetual state of ideological conflict that forces our cultures apart? Who is in the wrong: the criticizer or the criticized? The answer is whoever resorts to violence.
Self-censorship is not the answer to ideological tolerance: education is. Freedom of expression and the right to free speech and press should be able to coexist with religion. After all, not only are these universal rights that no group – religious or not – should infringe upon, but the respect for human life and dignity is the hallmark of every single organized religion. So why are religious laws are cited as acceptable reasons for violent conflict? When satire and criticism are created, they should be used as ways to learn and grow instead of plugging our ears with our fingers until the dissension stops.
American officials may be quick to denounce the video and its message, saying that it was a rogue group of extremists and in no way represents all of America, but the rest of the world — including Libya, Egypt, and Yemen — sits back and remembers what happened after 9/11 a little better than America does. The hypocrisy of the United States’s position on the video — that it was created by an extremist group and does not reflect the nation’s sentiment toward Islam and the Prophet Muhammad — is exponentiated by our recent historical treatment of dissenting opinion (especially in regards to Breanna Manning, the knee-jerk reaction to the attacks on 9/11, etc.) and is sure to feed the fires that are already burning American flags in northern Africa.