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September 12th, 2012
03:11 PM ET

Reaction to anti-Islam film fuels debate on free speech versus hate speech

By Dan Gilgoff, CNN.com Religion Editor

(CNN) - The deaths of the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans amid protests against a film that denigrates Islam has sparked global discussion and debate  about whether there is a line between free speech and hate speech and, if so, where it lies.

“They don’t regard perceived insults to the Prophet Mohammed or the Quran as being protected by free speech, they regard it as a capital offense,” says Peter Bergen, CNN’s national security analyst, referring to protesters in Libya and Egypt, where the U.S. Embassy was attacked, who were angered by the film.

According to The Wall Street Journal, the movie was made by a real estate developer who wanted to portray Islam as a hateful religion.  The attack on the U.S. personnel in Benghazi, Libya, was orchestrated by extremists who used the protests as a diversion, U.S. sources told CNN Wednesday.

“In some of these cases, the people releasing these films or cartoons are trying to make a statement about free speech, which is fair enough,” says Bergen, referring to the film and other provocative recent depictions of Mohammed, Islam’s founding prophet.

"But in some cases they are deliberately trying to provoke," Bergen says. "The film that is at issue is certainly very provocative, the way it treats the Prophet Mohammed, and people who release these things are being very irresponsible."

Read: Why Muslims are sensitive on Mohammed

Newt Gingrich told CNN Wednesday that the United States should seize on the violence spurred by the film “to teach the Muslim world about freedom,” specifically about freedom of speech.

His remarks, echoed by other conservatives on Wednesday, signaled something of a divide in reaction to developments in Libya and Egypt between the political right, which stressed freedom of speech, and the left, which added condemnation of those behind the anti-Muslim film.

"The horrific attacks in Libya & Egypt are a stark contrast to our American ideals of free speech, civil disagreement," wrote Todd Rokita, a Republican U.S. congressman who is from Indiana, on Twitter.

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Gingrich, the former presidential candidate and speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, said that after the attacks, “We had an opportunity to stand up and say, ‘You know, it is true - some people in the United States might make a film that is totally whacked out.’”

“Sooner or later, we in the modern world have to say to those who are living in a different way, ‘Look, we stand for freedom,’” he said.

Gingrich criticized statements from the U.S. government that he said went too far in condemning and apologizing for the anti-Muslim film.

In a statement on Tuesday morning - before the violence - the U.S. Embassy in Egypt wrote that it "condemns the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims – as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions."

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"Respect for religious beliefs is a cornerstone of American democracy," the statement continued. "We firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others."

Some U.S. officials spoke to the tension between U.S. support for free speech and what some have described as the film’s “hate speech,” in reacting to the attacks.

"The United States deplores any intentional effort to denigrate the religious beliefs of others," U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a statement.

"Our commitment to religious tolerance goes back to the very beginning of our nation,” she said. “But let me be clear: There is never any justification for violent acts of this kind."

Some other political and religious leaders also cited the tension between free speech and what they said was hate speech. "I support #freespeech AND believe this film is hateful," tweeted Eboo Patel, an American Muslim leader based in Chicago. "I stand up for #Islam AND condemn violence of extremist Muslims #fb #responsibility."

Others joined in venting disapproval of both the film and the attacks. "For the record, you can condemn violence in response to hate speech, and you can also condemn hate speech," wrote Jeff Fecke on Twitter. "You don't have to support either."

Some American Muslims said Wednesday that while they support the right of free speech, they believe that the U.S. applies its values selectively in the Muslim world, especially when it comes to military and intelligence operations.

“Freedom of speech falls alongside other freedoms to live and be free from bombs falling on people’s heads and to be free from occupations,” says Omid Safi, religious studies professor at the University of North Carolina, referring to American military and intelligence operations in parts of the Muslim world.

“I will take free speech comments seriously when others take people’s freedom of life and dignity and to be free from occupation just as seriously,” he said.

What do you think? Share your thoughts on the discussion around free speech and hate speech and we'll fold good ones into this post.

- CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

Filed under: Islam • Violence

soundoff (1,088 Responses)
  1. CNN panders to Islam

    Get a job you haters!!!!!! You all have too much time and opinion.......just shut up. Lol

    December 26, 2012 at 10:10 am |
  2. cappie

    muslims make the waffen ss look like saints maybe we should bring back the ss

    October 25, 2012 at 4:47 pm |
  3. Huzaifa

    "FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION GO TO HELL"
    When u attack black pple They call it "Racism"
    When u attack Jewish ppl They call it "Anti-semetism"
    When u attack Women,They call it"Gender discrimination"
    When u attack your Country They call it "Terrorism" When u attack a Religious sect,they call it"Hate speech"
    But when They attack at the dignity of our Prophet MUHAMMAD (P.B.U.H)
    They call it" Freedom of Expression"

    September 24, 2012 at 4:28 pm |
    • Alexandros

      Huzaifa,

      You are absolutely right that people in the West look down upon those who attack women and people of different ethnicities as a group. Certainly, Muslims deserve no less than non-Muslims in this regard. But personally, I would stress that, at least in the United States, racism, antisemitism, and misogyny, are also freedom of speech. We have media figures, some very popular, who are often accused of making statements that demean women or people of different religions. Most thinking people in the West view those who spread such ideas as bigots–including the man who produced the film critical of Muhammad. But hate speech, in the United States, is legal.

      December 3, 2012 at 8:47 pm |
    • salman rushdie

      but whatever the film shows is true and such teachings should be criticized don't u think so

      January 30, 2013 at 8:16 am |
    • ABCEFG

      Yea, because muslims cant possibly be muslim or black? Are you really that stupid?

      October 23, 2013 at 3:15 pm |
  4. Nafiz

    Freedom of speech has become an 'excuse' instead of its true meaning.

    September 24, 2012 at 7:39 am |
  5. hassan

    I am very much sad and very much offended / angry on the act of making such a film against Our Beloved Prophet (PBUM).
    I request to the whole world to plz remove it from You Tube and destroy it . And i demand to punish the movie maker for blaspheme

    September 24, 2012 at 5:09 am |
  6. abdul

    free speech is not absolute. There is Defamatory libel and hate speech which can never be contained under the caption of free speech. Or for Islam and muslims the rules are different

    September 23, 2012 at 8:44 pm |
  7. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things .

    September 20, 2012 at 5:38 am |
  8. Some guy

    I don't care if they burned a whole pile of Korans while making the film, that's
    their freedom. Anyone who reacts violently to that needs to grow up.

    September 20, 2012 at 5:32 am |
    • HPNIII

      Yea, I'm back after being booted off by cnn for some remark I made. I think it was the Sanduski, Paterno, statue comment. Some people are so sensitive about their idols. Well as far as this subject goes it is pretty simple, any religion that advocates murder for offensive statements, can't be much of a religion.

      September 20, 2012 at 7:37 am |
    • Will

      You should care. Book burning is wrong. People traveled across the Atlantic and founded a new country to get away from religious intollerance and eventually went to war over it. The U.S. needs to stop holding other countries to higher standards of order than it does itself if it wants to tout being the greatest country in the world. We need to blame the matadors and not just the bulls.

      September 20, 2012 at 12:10 pm |
    • some man

      Burning religious books is not freedom of speah............you should grow up and do some research on your existance in this world

      September 21, 2012 at 2:33 pm |
    • abdul

      damn there is physical abuse and emotional abuse. Burning a religious book is emotional abuse and spreading hate. why would someone burn a religious book? to spread peace!!!!!!!!

      September 23, 2012 at 8:49 pm |
  9. Mike Speakman

    All speech and expression should be free. If you are weak minded enough to turned to violence because of something someone said or drew then you deserve to be eliminated from this world.

    By the way, Mohammad was nothing more than a crafty merchant who formulated a religion with the sole purpose of taking control of Mecca and the profits from the pilgrimages that went on before and after the rise of Islam. He was the Rockefeller of his time nothing more.

    September 20, 2012 at 12:40 am |
    • AskWhy

      Yea and this Rockefeller of Islam somehow had less than 3 dinars in his household when he passed away!!!

      September 21, 2012 at 11:55 am |
  10. Bruce Rubin

    ALMOST ALL MUSLIM ARAB COUNTRIES COMMONLY BROADCAST ON GOVERNMENT CONTROLLED TELEVISION DEROGATORY PROGRAMMING ATTACKING JUDAISM, CHRISTIANITY AND HINDUISM. IRAN ALSO USES ITS MEDIA TO ATTACK THE BAHAI FAITH. IF YOU CANT TAKE IT DON'T DISH IT OUT

    September 19, 2012 at 9:01 am |
  11. Al Rabi

    After more than 1,400 sinc the beginning of Islam there are still large communities of Christians, Jews, Hindus, Budhists, Zorostrians and other religious groups in the Arab and Muslim world and these people will continue to live in this part of the world. If the claims that Muslims are not tolerant or Islam does not teach tolerance then more than 1,400 years should have been enough to rid the Arab and Muslim world of these groups. Does it make sense? Do you get it? This makes sense to those who have healthy minds and it does not to those with filthy minds. To which group do you belong?

    I proudly bear witness that there is no God but Allah and that Muhammed is his greatest prophet and messenger. Salaam:)

    September 19, 2012 at 2:43 am |
    • Rick

      If you are "offended" and your first thought is to KILL SOMEONE then you are a sick s.o.b. It "offends" the rest of the world that ALL religious FREAKS, Christian, Jew, Islamist and ALL others say how "peaceful" they are and the call for violence and hatred. If you advocate violence and hatred because you are "offended", or your "god" supposedly tells you to....you are a sick, degenerate, foul minded pig. Sorry....I don't want to "offend pigs.

      September 19, 2012 at 7:07 am |
  12. Just call me Lucifer

    I'm really sick of these zealots getting all the press. What... no love for the prince of darkness? I destroy and burn things too. Prophet shmophet.

    September 18, 2012 at 10:35 pm |
    • Bruce Rubin

      LUCIFER CLEARLY TOLD ME I WAS PROPHET SCHMOPHET. HE'S LYING TO ONE OF US!!!

      September 19, 2012 at 9:06 am |
  13. doabitofhomework

    Muhammad is one of those people in history that can make us wish that birth control could be made retroactive.

    He lived up to the very WORST in himself, demanded that others follow him and do likewise. Even with no religion at all, a person can recognize pure EVIL when it is as obvious as this. No "fallen angel" made it happen; he chose to be what he was, to do what he did, and taught his followers to be just like him and be proud of it.

    They still do. Islam offers "carrots" that are irresistible to men, particularly those who are not of entirely "adequate" proportions. Islam automatically validates any man's manliness merely by becoming – or being – a Muslim. Therefore, any criticism of Islam or Muhammad is taken by Muslims as a direct slap to their personal masculinity.

    Then they go berzerk, slaughtering right and left, as if doing so will somehow prove how "manly" they are. If they weren't so enamored with evil, one might even pity them.

    If you still think Islam is about "peace and tolerance," you might check into the prophet of doom dot com site, where, in Muhammad's OWN words, and in those of other Muslims, you'll learn it is very much otherwise.

    I feel no need to tolerate, or to feel sensitive to, the sensitivities of people whose knee-jerk reaction to problems is to kill. Nor need I feel shame that I do not respect the "religious rights" of people whose god tells them that I deserve to be slaughtered. Silly me.

    I don't hate Islam or Muslims, but I DO hate the violent things they do. My main feeling about Islam is FEAR, because Muslims all are busily at work preparing for total global conquest, and it really looks as though they will get their wish – and soon.

    September 18, 2012 at 5:40 pm |
    • AskWhy

      For once, pray to the creator of heavens and earth,"guide me to the right path" before you sleep. Keep an open mind and be ready for TRUTH.

      I do not accept any religion without critical examination. But I have no right to judge others religion.

      Make google search for "symmetricbook PDF" read it carefully.

      If there's God then he definitely has a message. I want to make sure the message has not been corrupted in transmission. And then the person who received the message can not be doubted because God will not use the wrong person to spread his message.

      September 21, 2012 at 12:25 pm |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team.