Diwate: A clash of extremes? New questions need new answers [PRINT VERSION]

Varad Diwate

The recent events in Libya and Egypt where U.S. embassies were stormed and U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens was killed are deplorable. These events were followed by protests, in some cases violent, throughout the world. Protesters say their actions are in reaction to a film posted on YouTube which mocks Prophet Muhammad by showing him as a buffoon. According to media sources, the film produced by Nakoula Basseley Nakoula under the name “Sam Bacile” was uploaded in July of this year. Violence erupted when an excerpt of the film was broadcast on an Egyptian Islamist television station.

Few would have imagined that a single video can create such a havoc. However, this issue is more than just a film as there are a number of intertwined issues. First of all, these events suggest a dangerous trend of growing extremist Islam in nations recently ruled by dictators and now on their path to becoming democracies. Ironically, Libya was guided on its “democratic” path with active U.S. involvement, as it had helped Libyans overthrow dictator Muammar Gaddafi with its military might and Egypt receives economic and military aid from the US.

Secondly, such incidents give us an entirely different perspective about technology. The free nature of the Internet is a great democratic tool as anyone with access to it can be a blogger or a multimedia journalist. There are a few serious bloggers on the internet who have insightful and critical views. But there are also religious and racial zealots who use internet in a potentially dangerous way. In this case, someone from America uploads a video which sparks violent protests in the Middle East and all over the world. In short, technology can be potentially destructive. Just type a few “relevant” words on Google, and you are able to see a fanatic badmouthing someone’s religion. If someone is intelligent enough to recognize the purpose behind such sites, he/she is likely to laugh off and get over it. However, there are still some who will be influenced by intolerant propaganda of abhorrence and violence. In such cases, can free speech and the Internet take responsibility for hate crimes?

Questions about freedom of speech and religious sensitivities emerge from time to time with such incidents. Can an individual in a free western democracy make his/her opinion public on any topic in any way? To put it bluntly, how far can we stretch the First Amendment shield? There are some possible guidelines to tread on.

According to the Supreme Court, “advocacy of the use of force” is unprotected when it is “directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action” and is “likely to incite or produce such action” In simple words, the issue of freedom of speech does not arise when it is blatantly used as a shield for malicious actions.

On similar lines, Badrya Darwish writes in the Kuwait Times, “Of course, the producer of the film and the actors taking part in the movie knew exactly what they were doing and knew exactly what the result of this would be — violence and riots — I call this insinuation of hatred and an act of terror that is wrapped in velvet. And do not say that it is about freedom of speech, because it is not!”

A small section of extreme elements in every religion and society are responsible for bringing disrepute to the group of which they are a part. So, a number of white supremacist groups with their horrendous activities can really make America look a racist society. And a few fanatics can make most of the minorities suspicious at international port of entries. The influence of such small sections causes problems for the majority which does not believe in bigotry.

Fortunately, there are some sane voices across continents and oceans. After the recent embassy attacks, the Arabic press denounced the violence and the filmmaker. In an explosive situation, it was easy for the media to jump on the bandwagon. Bloggers from troubled regions have also condemned the attacks.

We realize that rapid political, social and technological changes have brought forth a slew of tough questions. Clearly, we are not yet ready to do the balancing act. In a different scenario, what if tension fires up along racial, religion or any other lines throughout the world aided by the Internet? Possibly, we have no answer for this question. It looks as if it’s time to find solutions to problems we never thought about.