Denouncing Divinity: Blasphemy, Human Rights, and the Struggle of Political Leaders to defend Freedom of Speech in the Case of Innocence of Muslims

Author:Tom Herrenberg
Pages:194-212
SUMMARY

This article is about freedom of speech and the political responses to the blasphemous Innocence of Muslims video, which sparked international controversy in the fall of 2012. Politicians from multiple corners of the world spoke out on freedom of speech and its relation to blasphemy. Whereas one might expect that those politicians would abide by international human rights law, many of them issued ... (see full summary)

 
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ANCILLA IURIS (anci.ch) 2015: 1 – Article 1
Denouncing Divinity: Blasphemy, Human Rights, and the Strug gle of
Political Leaders to defend Freedom of Speech in the Case of Innocence of
Muslims
Abstract
This article is about freedom of speech and the political responses to the blasphemous Innocence of
Muslims video, which sparked international controversy in the fall of 2012. Politicians from multiple
corners of the world spoke out on freedom of speech and its relation to blasphemy. Whereas one might
expect that those politicians would abide by international human rights law, many of them issued state-
ments that unequivocally undermined the principle of free speech enshrined in those h uman rights in-
struments. This article discusses a number of these political statements against the background of
human rights standards.
It is unsatisfactory and even painful to the thinker himself, if he is not permitted to communicate
his thoughts to others, and it is obvious ly of no value to his neighbours.1
J.B. Bury (1861–1927)
I. Introduction
Freedom of speech is an individual right that is safeguarded by many international
human rights instruments as well as by many national constitutions. Its importance can
hardly be overstated. Michael O’Flaherty, former member of the United Nations Human
Rights Committee, puts it this way: ‘The high importance accorded to freedom of expression
[…] is not just a matter of philosophy or ideology. As a matter of empirical observation it can
be seen that free expression is essential to the good working of the entire human rights sys-
tem.‘2
In recent decades we have witnessed a number of controversies about cases in which this
right was practiced in a mann er that was derogatory of Islamic tenets . The fall of 2014 marked
the second anniversary of the latest example of such a controversy: the video that became
known as Innocence of Muslims. Whereas ‘freedom‘ can commonly be understood as the
absence of coercion by national public actors who function according to national legislation3,
cases such as The Satanic Verses, the Danish cartoons or Innocence of Muslims are different with
1
* I would like to thank the editors of this journal and two anonymous reviewers for their comments on an
earlier version of this article. Many thanks to Professor Paul Cliteur for valuable lessons taught during the
‘Ethics‘ course at Leiden University.
1John Bagnell Bury, A History of Freedom of Thought (1913), 7.
2Michael O’Flaherty, Freedom of Expression: Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political
Rights and the Human Rights Committee’s General Comment No 34, Human Rights Law Review (2012),
627–654, 630–631.
3 When, for example, Charles Schenck played a part in the dissemination of anti-war propaganda, he was
prosecuted and sentenced by American officials for violating American law (the famous case of S chenck v.
United States, 249 U.S. 47 (1919)).
by Tom Herrenberg*
Tom Herrenberg – Denouncing Divinity
2A
NCILLA IURIS (anci.ch) 2015: 1 – Article
regard to ‘freedom‘. In these cases, ‘freedom‘ means the absence of physical violence, or of
the threat of physical violence, by foreign government officials (for example, Ayatollah Kho-
meini’s edict calling for the death of the novelist Salman Rushdie) or by non-state actors (for
example, demonstrators attacking Western embassies in the Middle East). In the second set of
cases mentioned above (The Satanic Verses, the Danish cartoons, and Innocence of Muslims) no
law had been broken. Nonetheless, the blasphemous utterances included in these publica-
tions are often responded to by politicians. This proves to be an uneasy task, for they have to
mediate between the value of free speech in general, and the particular expression that is
related to severe public disorder.
This article aims to elaborate on this political dimension and the contrast between the
legal instruments and political discourse by taking several reactions by political leaders to
Innocence of Muslims as the starting point for discussion. The article proceeds as follows. Part
II briefly describes some relevant events concerning the Innocence of Muslims video. Part III
focuses on the response of the highest official of the United Nations, Secretary-General Ban
Ki-moon, to Innocence of Muslims. This Part will compare Ban Ki-moon’s outlook on free
speech to a key human rig hts instrument: the Inte rnational Covenant on Civil and Political
Rights. This Part also discusses statements made by Hillary Clinton and Navi Pillay, in which
they spoke about the intentions of the creator of Innocence of Muslims in making his video.
Part IV centers around a statement that was issued by several organizations, including the
European Union, as a response to Innocence of Muslims and which proclaims the value of
‘respect‘. A short conclusion will be presented in Part V.
II. Innocence of Muslims: the Video and the Turmoil
Innocence of Muslims is the title commonly attributed to a video, considered by many Mus-
lims to be blasphemous, that was posted on video-sharing website YouTube. The video was
produced by Mark Basseley Youssef (also known as Nakoula Basseley Nakoula), an Egyp-
tian-born Coptic Christian living in America, and was posted on YouTube by his son.4 It was
initially reported that the cost of making the video – $5,000,000 – was funded by 100 Jewish
donors.5 Later, it transpired that the cost was no more than $80,000, ‘apparently raised
through Nakoula’s second ex-wife’s Egyptian family and donations from other Copts.‘6
Roughly speaking, the video consists of two parts. The first part pictures an angry mob of
Muslims rioting in the streets of modern-day Egypt. In the opening scenes, Muslims plunder
what appears to be a pharmacy, burn houses and kill a woman wearing a crucifix. Security
forces are depicted observing the mayhem but unwilling to intervene. In the second part the
video shifts to the past and focuses on the prophet Muhammad and a group of looters sur-
rounding him. Scenes likely to be offensive to many Muslims are those in which Muhammad
is talking to a donkey, womanizing, and advocating slavery. Moreover, he is called ‘a mur-
derous thug‘ and is in gen eral pictured as a vicious warlord. Many , if not all of the references
to the prophet Muhammad and the Islamic religion were, to the dismay of the actors, added
in post-production by means of overdubbing.7 In a statement to CNN, the actors said: ‘We
4 ‘From Man Who Insulted Muhammad, No Regret’, The New York Times, 26 November 2012.
5 Anger Over a Film Fuels Anti-American Attacks in Libya and Egypt’, The New York Times, 12 September
2012.
6 ‘From Man Who Insulted Muhammad, No Regret’, The New York Times, 26 November 2012.
7 ‘Man Behind Anti-Islam Video Gets Prison Term’, The New York Times, 8 November 2012.

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