It should not be so easy to enrage people

Unfortunately, it looks like the provocateur who made the anti-Muslim film Innocence of Muslims has got the result he wanted, creating turmoil in the Middle East.

It turns out that the mysterious ‘Sam Bacile’, the self-proclaimed Israeli who was initially credited with having made the film with the support of 100 Jewish donors is actually a Coptic Christian from Egypt with a long history of aliases and criminal and shady activities now living in the US. Coptic Christians are a vulnerable minority in Egypt and are understandably nervous of revenge attacks against them due to his actions.

Koran-burning pastor Terry Jones seems to have entered late into the proceedings, agreeing to lend his notoriety to help promote the film. Another Christian activist named Steve Klein seems to have had a much greater involvement with the project.

Curiously it turns out that even the actors did not know what was happening. They were told that they were acting in a desert adventure film and their words were crudely dubbed during post-production.

So with one cheaply produced YouTube video of a trailer for a film (it is not clear if the full film even exists), this person has managed to set Muslims, Jews, and Christians against each other in many nations. It seems to be so easy to get religious people riled up enough that they will actually murder others over a video. So far the US government has admirably stood firm on the issue of free speech rights.

I suspect that most Muslims, like most people everywhere, do not react violently to perceived insults to their religion. Islam just happens to have sufficient people who are willing to do such things so that it goes beyond acts of individual rage and becomes seen as a collective response. Reader Hunter sent me this photo of an alternative response to the killings in Benghazi.

It may be that the murder of US diplomats is the tipping point, an event serious enough that it makes people realize that this kind of behavior can no longer be tolerated. One can only hope.


  1. Jared A says

    My understanding is that in the US speech that is directly and purposefuly inciting others to violence (for example, shouting “kill him” to an armed mob) is not protected by the 1st amendment. Is this correct?

    Religious issues completely aside, does that type of law come close to applying here? I mean, it’s perverse because I would think typically it would apply when the inciter has some control over the people he is inciting. But the way the internet allows people to hide their identity and motives does change this a little from historical examples of mob violence.

    If this man had a group of people in mind that he knew would become violent towards a 3rd part if he used this, and he used them expressly in order to incite violence, then there are some similarities to someone who has defunct authority over a violent mob.

    I don’t know, I’m not trying to be a troll here, not even a concern troll. I don’t want to try to minimize the culpability of these violet rioters who are at best ignorant, murderous thugs and at worst coldly calculating assassins. I don’t want to minimize the culpability of their organizers, who troll the internet looking for things to feed their thugs. Until now it hadn’t occurred to me this side of the free speech issue, and I don’t understand the laws well enough to know what the precedent is. Does anyone know more about these types of free speech issues and how it applies here? I don’t think that hurting peoples feelings should be against the law, even if you are trying to incite them to rage and violence. But I always thought of this in terms of a scenario where people are face to face and one has more direct responsibility/fear of causality. The nature of the anonymity and false identity in the internet makes the idea of responsibility more ambiguous to me.

  2. Mano Singham says

    This is a very good question. The US Supreme Court ruling that people point to is Brandenburg v Ohio but there is a divergence of opinion on how it might apply here.

    I have been preparing a post on this very topic but am down with the flu at the moment (hence the lighter blogging) and will get to it when I get better.

  3. Scott says

    NPR reported that certain militants may have used the video as a catalyst to whip up anger, rather than it just being a spontaneous demonstration that got out of hand. It seems, however, that irony is lost on the demonstrators. If they had reacted peacefully, in effect saying “We find this deeply offensive and insulting,” but not rioting or killing anyone over it, they could have scored a lot of points with the West.

    Like that would ever happen.

  4. octoberfurst says

    It seems to me that the Muslim world is much more prone to acting out violently when they perceive that their religion is under attack than any other religion. For example, Christians will protest the showing of what they believe is an anti-Christian film but they don’t riot & kill people.
    As an atheist I think that all religion is nonsense but how do you change a culture–i.e. Islamic–that won’t even let you debate? Recently there was an Indonesian man who was attacked by a mob and later thrown in prison for simply stating he was an atheist on his Facebook page. Salman Rushdie had a fatwa placed against him for his book “The Satanic Verses.” Why is it so dangerous to even question something in the Koran in Muslim countries? It’s insane. Are Muslims so insecure in their faith that they must punish anyone who questions it? This world would be a much better place without religion.

  5. Jared A says

    What would have been perfect for scoring points is a protest like the one in Father Ted. “Down with this sort of thing!” “Careful, now!”

  6. drr1 says

    Brandenburg is the controlling authority, but the “incitement” test the Court produced there is rather demanding, and it has been narrowly construed over the years. In order for speech to qualify as incitement, and thus to be “unprotected” under the First Amendment, the speaker must have had a purpose to incite or produce imminent lawless action, and the speech must be likely to incite or produce such imminent lawless action. The key element here is imminence. Unless the speaker acts to produce lawlessness right now, the speech is likely to get a pass under the First Amendment. The Supreme Court and lower courts have narrowly construed the Brandenburg test over the years, consistent with the First Amendment notion that the remedy for speech is more speech, not the heavy hand of the state.

    As to whether Brandenburg might have any application here – that is, whether this speech might be considered unprotected incitement, the answer is no. I cannot see a United States court ruling that the speaker(s) acted here with a purpose to incite or produce imminent lawless action. They may have known that violence was quite likely to follow; indeed, I’m willing to assume that that was at least one of the purposes of the speech. That, by itself, doesn’t suffice under Brandenburg. The speech will be protected because it cannot be shown that this speech incited or produced imminent lawless action.

    In short, we’ve decided that we are – at times – willing to risk the consequences of speech that others find offensive. That those consequences come to pass does not alter the constitutional bargain. We mourn those senselessly killed or harmed, and we exercise our freedom of speech to display to the world the barbarism of those who are responsible, including those who uttered the offending words in the first instance.

  7. M Groesbeck says

    I tend to interpret the “catalyst” bit (not your statement of it, but that it happened) as a sign that, basically, this whole pile of crap is a matter of right-wing Christians (sometimes pretending to be right-wing Jews) and right-wing Muslims trying to start a war and demanding that everybody take sides.

    I’d rather just pile all the right-wing theocrats on an island so that they can fight it out amongst themselves. That way we only have to ignore whichever side survives, rather than going to the effort of ignoring both.

  8. Jared A says

    Oh yeah, I had forgotten all about the “imminent” part. That makes a lot of sense. It’s actually pretty heartening when I am reminded that sometimes people think carefully before acting, eventually making rules that are reasonable and well though out.

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