September 12th, 2012
03:11 PM ET
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."
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.
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."
"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.
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 with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.