Diwate: A clash of extremes? New questions need new answers

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. 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 this year. Violence erupted when an excerpt of the film was broadcast on an Egyptian Islamist television station. According to recent reports, there have been protests in Pakistan which reportedly killed 19 people, and there were also protests in the United Kingdom.

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 in these nations which were recently ruled by dictators and now are on the path to democracy. This concern is about the rise of extremist Islam. An article from the New York Times published on Sept. 16 by Robert Worth and Helene Cooper ponders upon future U.S. action in Syria to topple the dictator Bashar al-Assad, where he has at least managed to keep Islamist forces in check.

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. 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. YouTube banned access to the controversial video in troubled Islamic countries. There have been doubts if this actually made a difference, as YouTube is not the only video streaming site.

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 seeing the film, one realizes that there is nothing scholarly about it and there is nothing which can justify the destruction and killings that have taken place. Perhaps, it’s time to think about complex questions involving individual rights, collective religious rights and the First Amendment.

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. All such nuisance-creating events are the actions and reactions of extremist elements.

Another aspect that comes to the forefront after incidents such as these is about the free nature of the Internet. It has emerged as a great democratic tool, as anyone with access to it can be a blogger or a multimedia journalist. But, on the flipside, there is no one who can verify everything that goes online.

Did you ever have a look at those conspiracy sites which propagate theories on just about everything? Man never landed on the moon, the world government, the president’s secret agenda and other such good laughingstock. This is all an outcome of cheap technology and even cheaper Internet.

This is not to generalize all kinds of Internet users. There are a few serious bloggers on the Internet. But there are also religious and racial zealots who use the Internet in a potentially dangerous way. 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 are influenced by intolerant propaganda of hate and violence.

Can free speech and the Internet take responsibility for hate crimes?

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.

Notably, even in difficult times, political opportunism was at its best in the United States. Mitt Romney criticized President Barack Obama as, according to him, the administration’s response was “to sympathize with those who waged the attacks.” It was definitely not the best time to score brownie points as the news of the ambassador’s death was still sinking in.

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? Possibly, we have no answer for this question. It looks as if it’s time to find solutions to problems we never thought about.