Muslims burn an American flag following a protest in Kaduna, Nigeria, on Monday. (AP Photo/Godwin Attah)
For the past couple of weeks the world has known no peace due to the provocative video Innocence of Muslims. Already the rage has cost the life of John Christopher Stevens, the US Ambassador to Libya, and other innocents. Around this crisis, trenches are once again being dug for and against free speech. What is free speech? Does intentional spite qualify?
A typical western mind, accustomed to freedom of expression as a human right, cannot understand the full import of this film. In America the issue of free speech is largely a war of words. In Nigeria, where I live, if we get it wrong, a cousin of mine gets killed. Nigeria stands on a fault-line between Christianity and Islam. Tensions are already high. The vampires of Nigeria have uncorked a fountain of blood, wishing to drain and drown the country in the process. As though we do not have enough troubles, a film of this nature goes viral on the internet.
Authorities here have moved to calm rather than inflame passions. Despite that, there were protests in Zaria, with the burning of United States and Israel flags accompanied with chants: “Death to America” and “Death to Israel”. There were peaceful marches in Sokoto and Kano respectively. But the situation in Jos, a flashpoint for Muslim-Christian conflict, almost got out of hand. Security forces had to disperse a peaceful protest on September 14, fearing that it might spark renewed conflict in the city.
No amount of provocation can justify the killing sprees and destruction that have characterized the reaction of some Muslims – from Egypt to Libya, Yemen to Pakistan, Khartoum to Zaria – against their Prophet. It should also go without saying that although the movie was made by a crazy American, the US as a nation did not back the movie. President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have both apologized profusely. Similarly, it does not mean that Christians or Jews everywhere are against Muslims. That is a gross over-simplification and amplification of the story.
At the same time, why shouldn’t Muslims protest against an affront to their religion, as long as it’s peaceful? After all, people march against other causes. That’s the beauty of democracy: if you are not comfortable with an action or inaction, you show your angst by making as much noise as possible – so long as you don’t break any law in the process.
Writing in a local paper this week Disu Kamor, executive chairman of the Muslim Public Affairs Centre in Nigeria, condemned the film as part of a global campaign to fuel “Islamophobia”. Though he also condemns the violent and murderous element in the Muslim reaction, he says that “America must wake up to the fact that the actions of the Islamophobic thugs in the US are not isolated but integral pattern and they must be curbed by putting a very short leash on them at all times.”
Blogger, Muhammad Lawal, is of a different opinion. He thinks that the movie is being given undue attention. As such he thinks is better to “ignore the ignorant” because “it’s only a matter of time before someone else tries to play on the sensitivities of Muslims.”
In the era of the internet (as far as I am concerned, politics can be classified as BI or AI – before the internet and after the internet) the control of speech seems a lost cause, and although this is painful for politicians and religious groups alike, it can be a blessing.
When the residents of the Soweto rioted against apartheid, the government was able to suppress the news. But, thirty-six years later, the government could never conceal the murders of miners by police. Could the Rwandan genocide happen today? Probably not. Horrific photos would have gone viral and Western powers would have intervened in time — although all the pictures coming out of Syria seem to have done its civilians little good to date.
However, is free speech absolute? Human beings are autonomous but not independent. There are bodily and spiritual needs that an individual cannot meet by himself but must depend on others for satisfaction. Our freedom is a shared freedom, limited by the freedom of others. If we do not want governments to intervene in the free exchange of ideas — as China does in censoring the internet, for example — we must impose some discipline on ourselves. The individual must draw the line between free speech and arbitrary spite.
While no one has been commissioned to take up arms as God’s warrior, there does seem to be a deliberate plan to inflame religious sentiments and thus provoke “religious war”. The butchers of Nigeria, Boko Haram, claim that they are fighting a religious battle. Innocence of Muslims has only reinforced their madness. The plan seems to be to get the fanatics to draw blood and then turn the blame onto religion.
The secular and the divine are two realms that should remain independent. However, we cannot afford a situation where some – knowing full well the implications – go ahead to incite fanatical reactions. As Nigerian President Jonathan Goodluck told the United Nations recently, “Events of recent weeks have demonstrated how interconnected our world is and the extent to which one incident can spark off general mayhem and conflagration. Freedom of expression should not be a licence to incitement.”
Freedom comes with a corresponding responsibility. There has to be a middle course, knowing when not to lay claim to a “liberty” for the sake of others is plain common sense. A mad Frenchman has added more fuel to an already tense situation. And who will bear the brunt? The innocent, as usual. The insult was released beyond the Atlantic, but the injury will be inflicted down in the Sahara.
Nigerian Christians are among those suffering heavy burdens from this infamy. Joe Dashit, an undergraduate student in political science, laments: “My concern is that every time there is an anti-Islam publication in another country, Muslims in Nigeria will react violently against innocent Nigerian Christians who know nothing about the publication.” Free spite is not free speech but incendiary rhetoric.