There’s some shuffling of feet going on in Western governments, about this whole freedom of speech and the press thing that democracies are pledged to defend. And who wouldn’t shuffle, after the events of the past week, and of the past 30-plus years, in the Islamic world.
Two quite deliberate provocations were the immediate cause of the deadly riots. One, a video called the Innocence of Muslims, is so technically and dramatically bad that on first viewing it would seem to be something done in satirical vein by Sacha Baron Cohen, all false beards and ham dialogue. The other, the publication of a series of cartoons of Mohammad in the French magazine Charlie Hebdo, showed Mohammad in various nude poses. Whatever their quality, they do not just make waves – they make deaths. We can no longer pretend otherwise. Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses taught us too much.
The French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said last week that “freedom of expression must not be infringed … but is it pertinent, is it intelligent, in this context to pour oil on the fire. The answer is no.” This formulation, repeated in different ways across the governments of the democratic world, says that states will and must uphold the principle of freedom; but that freedom, once conceded, should be used with care.
The question, which he turns back in large part on the media, is: How should we define “intelligent?” What is an “intelligent” use of freedom in this context?
It certainly does not apply to what the filmmakers did. The Innocence of Muslims seems to have been made by a group of Coptic Christians living in the U.S. The Copts number several million in Egypt (the figure is hotly disputed, with official sources saying there are no more than 4 million, while Copts claim as many as 14 million). And they are like other minorities in the area: Some among them have done well in business and the professions, yet they labor under both official discrimination and popular suspicion. The main producer of the video, Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, allegedly hid his identity behind the name of Sam Bacile and claimed he was an Israeli Jew – thus shifting the blame to the most unpopular Middle Eastern minority among Muslims (and putting them at even more risk), deflecting anger away from his own community.
Once unmasked as a Copt, he has put his own community in greater danger than ever. That community has seen what protection it enjoyed under the presidency of Hosni Mubarak weaken in the new order: A Coptic church was bombed in Alexandria on New Year’s Day 2011, and 23 worshippers died. This is a community on very short sufferance: Bacile- Basseley, having failed to palm the fault off on the Jews, has appreciably shortened it further. Intelligent he certainly wasn’t.
Stéphane Charbonnier, publishing director of Charlie Hebdo, the weekly satirical magazine that published a series of lewd cartoons on Mohammad, argues that:
I live under French law, I don’t live under the law of the Koran … it’s plain to see that the sole subject that poses a problem is radical Islam. When we attack the Catholic right, very strongly, no-one talks about it in the newspapers. But we’re not allowed to laugh at Muslim fundamentalists?
In Charbonnier’s argument, radical Islamists are special only because they threaten random violence, as well as targeted violence against those who don’t consider them special. The first full expression of this was the reaction to The Satanic Verses, Salman Rushdie’s 1988 novel, which used verses said to be uttered by Mohammad commending the worship of female goddesses – verses later retracted by him. Western scholars accept the story; contemporary Muslim scholars usually reject it.
Rushdie, as he makes clear in his just-published memoir, Joseph Anton, bent Verses to fictional purposes only, and thought little of any offense: He saw the Koran, as all religious writing, not as revelations but as texts of their time, created by fallible humans with particular ends in view. He, from a largely secular Muslim family in India, was the first high-profile target of radical Islamism in the West. He lived behind Special Branch guard for over a decade, shuttled from house to house, the target of energetically manufactured hatred. After Rushdie, we cannot say we don’t know the costs of provocation. Was it intelligent to rack them up again?
There is, finally, the issue of what we, the media, make of the freedom we claim. The British philosopher Onora O’Neill has argued that the concept of freedom of expression and of the press, passionately proposed by radicals and liberals from the 17th century to our own day, had to be combined with accountability and a sense of responsibility or it could itself become tyrannous: ”freedom of the press does not require a licence to deceive”, she writes. Where there is clear deception, or worse, clear provocation, the media also acquire a license to kill. An awesome power – but an intelligent one? The answer is certainly no.
The makers of Innocence of Muslims and the little group that put out Charlie Hebdo are testing the extremity of freedom. They live on the margins and have less to lose from giving offense than a large media group embroiled in a scandal that might hit its bottom line. Indeed, they have more to gain: Charlie Hebdo tripled its modest circulation with the Mohammad cartoons. In the case of the filmmakers, we can assume a certain measure of revenge. In the case of the magazine, the calculation of increased circulation could not have been absent (it rarely is in journalism). But the main impulse, here as in other issues, is to shock and provoke.
We know enough about our societies to understand that the margins contribute much, sometimes most, to our freedoms. In the past century, these groups have rallied from the margins and been mocked for doing so: women claiming the vote, the colonized claiming independence, minorities claiming equality and the censored claiming a voice. The filmmakers and cartoon publishers are not in line with these groups. They’re not fighting for a great cause. They’re sticking it to the radical Islamists, and watching them howl.
And yet democratic societies, if they are to be true to themselves, have little choice. What we believe in is freedom of the individual – freedom to do much that is deeply unintelligent, as well as to produce intellectual marvels. Onora O’Neill draws a distinction between powerful media corporations and the single voice of the individual, and privileges the latter: ”we have good reasons for allowing individuals to express opinions even if they are invented, false, silly, irrelevant or plain crazy.” She did not, perhaps, foresee the day when a greater ability to cause mayhem would reside with the silly, false and plain crazy products of individuals and tiny groups, rather than the behemoths of the media.
But that is what is happening. We, most of all in the media, have to consider responsibility as the indispensable adjunct to freedom. But in the end, we must protect the right to free expression against those whose demand for “respect” cannot be assuaged. Little that was intelligent has been published, and nothing but evil has come of it in the short term. But having fought for centuries to achieve freedom to say what we wish, it would be dumb to give up on it. We’re stuck with liberty.
John Lloyd is a Reuters columnist and co-founder, the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, where he is Director of Journalism.