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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. G. Zeus Kreiszchte

    Hmmm, you can't yell "Fire" in a theater when there isn't one.

    And yet you CAN, if you are a member of Westboro Baptist Cult, yell such fallacies at strangers' funerals as, "GOD HATES YOU!" which, translated, means "I HATE YOU!" and "GOD HATES AMERICA!" which, translated, means "I HATE AMERICA!" and "GOD HATES F@GS!" which, translated, means "I HATE F@GS!" So it is perfectly OK to spew BLATANT HATE SPEECH as long as it projects your own personal hate onto a make-believe "god?"

    And yet it is not OK to make a derogatory movie about Mohammed and his alleged "god" Allah and their pathetic followers? Why? Are Muslims special? WHY? What makes them have "more rights" than anyone else? Just because they have a tendency to be childish and bomb #h|+ when they get offended?! Oh well, then let's all just resort to violence when we get offended, shall we? That'll really improve society for sure and we'll all get more rights! (MOST EMPHATIC, SARDONIC SARCASM INTENDED IN THE LAST 2 SENTENCES! NO! I AM NOT CONDONING VIOLENCE!!!!)

    September 13, 2012 at 9:39 pm |
    • Hamm

      When you get right down to it isn't this movie like yelling "fire" in a theatre when there isn't one? The guy knew the the reaction was going to be frenzied and likely violent, but he did it anyway to get precisely that reaction. He had to know that someone was probably going to get killed, and that blood is on his hands.

      September 13, 2012 at 11:27 pm |
  2. JerseyJeff78

    In my mind, there is no. Debate. Freedom of speech is a fundamental right of a truly democratic society. If we decide to make curbs to this freedom because somebody is upset or offended, where does it stop? As the saying goes, 'I might not like what you say, but I will fight for your right to say it.'. These are one of those moments where we realize freedom is not always free. It has costs. You are free to be ignorant and let the whole world know it all day long. We accept in our society that people have that right and it is up to us to recognize and ignore and shun ignorance.

    September 13, 2012 at 9:38 pm |
  3. Iqbal Khan

    [youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=62xHNvvGsFU&w=640&h=360]

    September 13, 2012 at 9:29 pm |
  4. reldra

    Freedom of speech is not without limit. You can't yell "fire" in a crowded theater when there isn't one. If a film like this was intended to provoke violence, it has crossed the line. I actually feel this untalented filmmaker was too stupid to envision the aftermath, but I can't see into his mind. The crazy pastor Terry Jones in Forida, though promoted the film and screened it at his church. That 'pastor' has been previously warned by federal authorities. If anything, he should be visited by federal authorities again. It is no excuse to actually respond with violence to such a ridiculous and horribly made film. But without the film, this wouldn't have happened.

    September 13, 2012 at 9:23 pm |
    • Hamm

      Yes, don't we recognize that if someone gives a speech, or sermon that incites a crowd to form into a violent mob that person is culpable for the actions of that mob? How is this film any different?

      September 13, 2012 at 11:34 pm |
  5. AvdBerg

    The unrest and attacks on US Embassies is a culmination of the rising tensions and deep-rooted hatred amongst civilizations in a divided world (Matthew 12:25,26). For a better understanding of the history of Islam and the Middle East we invite you to read the articles ‘World History and Developments in the Middle East’, ‘Clash of Civilizations’ and ‘CNN Belief Blog – Sign of the Times’, listed on our website http://www.aworlddeceived.ca

    All of the other pages and articles listed on our website explain how and by whom this whole world has been deceived as confirmed in Revelation 12:9.

    September 13, 2012 at 8:43 pm |
    • G. Zeus Kreiszchte

      Any alleged "predictions" offered by the bible are no less va-gue and universally applicable, and no more accurate than any horoscope in any newspaper any time any where. That's the whole problem with bible (or quran, etc.) thumpers! They think they're "on to something real" just because some craftily worded, va-gue passages seem to va-guely apply to modern circu-mstances. Now, if they had predicted actual names of future personages of importance or actual Dow Jones Industrial averages on given future dates, that would have been something to behold!

      September 13, 2012 at 8:55 pm |
    • niknak

      One could use those passages to predict the next superbowl winner too.
      They are meaningless, except to delusional people who still cling to 2000 year old myths.
      The funny part is, if that is possible, is that your bible and jeebus are ripped off from earlier religions, yet you still follow it as if it is some original thing.
      But I quess the religious scammers need sheep like you to keep supporting them.

      September 13, 2012 at 9:20 pm |
    • Gerry

      I didn't know that Canada had fundie nutjobs like we do.

      September 13, 2012 at 11:36 pm |
  6. hikertom

    The Islamic world needs to get it through their heads that we in the United States hold freedom of speach to be as sacrosanct as they hold Mohammed and the Koran. They have no right to interfere with our internal cultural values.

    Muslims need to learn to not watch movies or look at cartoons that offend them. What a film maker does in the United States is none of their business.

    September 13, 2012 at 8:20 pm |
  7. georgex

    These people have been isolated from access to free inquiry since the Prophet appeared. And in that closed society strict adherence to what the imams tell them doesn't leave much freedom to choose. If they step out of line they meet punishment (social or physical) and if they disobey that is not only in this life but they are told that they will suffer for eternity in hell for not doing so. They really believe this hoax.but there is hope now with modern communication they are getting outside information (ie, this film) where true or not. Hopefully, with such exposure their societies will begin to come out of the Arab Dark Ages.

    September 13, 2012 at 8:17 pm |
  8. TruthFromQuran

    The basic "script" IS from the quran itself. What outraged the people is the fact an other human being portrayed Mohammed and was photographed/filmed. That is the ultimate Muslim/Islam disgrace. We are all infidels and deserve death anyway. We are the the great Satan.

    September 13, 2012 at 7:58 pm |
    • Al Hussein

      What Allah was we are. What Allah is we will be.

      September 13, 2012 at 8:03 pm |
    • thecollegeadmissionsguru

      how true, since Allah is NOTHING and when we die we will be just like him – NOTHING.. good analogy.

      September 13, 2012 at 8:06 pm |
  9. manhandler1

    Agree with "Portland tony." Yelling "Fire" in a theater is NOT protected free speech. Hate speech that directly leads to violence and death should likewise not be protected.

    September 13, 2012 at 7:57 pm |
    • thecollegeadmissionsguru

      Yes, but the Supreme Court has ruled that just because speech is deemed hateful does not mean it is not protected under the first ammendment. That's the crux of the ammedment, the fact that one has the right to speak out against anyone and anything, even hatefully, in this country. Look at the Westboro Baptist Church and their hate speech, it has been protected again and again.

      September 13, 2012 at 8:05 pm |
    • G. Zeus Kreiszchte

      But you can do the same analogous act toward any other religion on the planet and it wouldn't lead to any RPG's or car-bombs going off, or any planes flying into buildings, etc. (and please don't say "Norther Ireland" because that's not the same thing.) Muslims are the weakest, most immature people who they think they are "special" and no one should have to respect that. They should have to grow up like the rest of the human race.

      September 13, 2012 at 8:05 pm |
    • G. Zeus Kreiszchte

      Northern Ireland.....darn N key!

      September 13, 2012 at 8:07 pm |
    • hikertom

      So, are you saying that the most violent people should be the ones to decide what is hate speach?

      September 13, 2012 at 8:07 pm |
    • Portland tony

      Knowingly inciting a crowd to do violence or illegal acts is not protected. There are limits that the Supreme Court has placed on derogatory and untruthful statements made against an organization. There's the fighting words doctrine etc...

      September 13, 2012 at 9:11 pm |
  10. G. Zeus Kreiszchte

    "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."

    BULL$H|+! The Consti-tution merely says that the government will not establish any laws prohibiting the free practice of religion. That does not in any way mean that U.S. citizens are required (by law or insinuation) to be respectful of any religious beliefs.

    September 13, 2012 at 7:48 pm |
    • Cq

      How many religious Americans are actually respectful of other people's religions? Some Christians are OK with things like birth control, gay marriage, and evolution so when fundamentalists say the kind of degrading things they often do about these things aren't they insulting the beliefs of moderate Christians? Where's the show of respect for these people's beliefs?

      September 13, 2012 at 11:42 pm |
    • Chad

      dont atheists denigrate Christians by insisting that the God of Abraham doesnt exist?

      September 13, 2012 at 11:44 pm |
    • Rhino Bob

      Christians denigrate themselves by asserting that an invisible fantasy superfriend exists.

      Do you denigrate Muslims by saying Allah is a false God? Or is the problem the idiots who assert there are supernatural beings?

      If someone is denigrated by telling the truth, that poor""denigrated" person is living in a monumental lie. The problem is the silly assertion, not the person saying "no, there really isn't an Allah, or Jesus, or the invisible superhero of your choice.

      September 13, 2012 at 11:50 pm |
    • Cq

      Chad
      To denigrate is to criticize unfairly, and what is unfair in pointing out that there is no evidence for the God of Abraham existing when you know that this is a fact?

      September 14, 2012 at 9:26 am |
  11. Aric

    Whoever made this movie should have known this would happen as a much less inflammatory cartoon caused multiple deaths. It served no purpose other than to provoke people as it was essentially unwatchable and devoid of intellectual discussion. Just a bunch of death, sodomy, child molestation, and other crap. Pathetic really.

    September 13, 2012 at 7:36 pm |
    • G. Zeus Kreiszchte

      And yet the South Park episodes 200 and 201 are absolutely TAME in comparison and the whiny Muslims managed to effect a ban on them. SouthParkStudios won't broadcast it over the Internet. You have to get the DVD's to watch them. Muslims are pathetic, whiny bi+ches!

      September 13, 2012 at 7:52 pm |
    • Gerry

      G.
      They may be "bi+ches", but everyone knows how dangerous these bi+ches can get. This reaction was no surprise to the film maker, and he probably made the movie to get just this response. The blood of the dead is on his hands.

      September 13, 2012 at 11:47 pm |
  12. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things .

    September 13, 2012 at 7:35 pm |
    • hal 9000

      I'm sorry "Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things", but you assertions regarding atheism and prayer are unfounded. I see that you repeat these unfounded statements with high frequency. Perhaps the following book might help you overcome this problem:

      I'm Told I Have Dementia: What You Can Do... Who You Can Turn to...
      by the Alzheimer's Disease Society

      September 13, 2012 at 7:38 pm |
  13. Truth

    "He has every right to say these h@teful, desplcible things"

    You do know that our rights don't apply outside of the US right? Just because we can say fvck Mohammed here in the US with no real risk doesn't mean just because we are American we can go to Pakistan or Iran and say the same thing and not expect to be charged with blasphemy.

    So yes, they all have the right to say what they want here, on our soil. But you head over there and they have very different laws with very different penalties.

    September 13, 2012 at 7:27 pm |
  14. Kris Craig

    Oh and CNN, please don't post articles about hate if you're going to imploy comment filters that silently block words like h@teful and desplcible. When you do that, I'm forced to break up my comment into tiny parts so I can identify exactly what's getting nonsensically blocked this time. I'm still waiting for you to grow up and turn these filters off.

    September 13, 2012 at 7:16 pm |
    • Portland tony

      Yelling "Fire" in a theater when there is none is not protected speech. "Knowing" your words will incite violence and mayhem is not protected!

      September 13, 2012 at 7:27 pm |
  15. Kris Craig

    Just as I have the right to say this guy is a complete waste of life who should've been in that embassy the night of the attack.

    September 13, 2012 at 7:14 pm |
  16. Kris Craig

    He has every right to say these h@teful, desplcible things.

    September 13, 2012 at 7:14 pm |
  17. Kris Craig

    It doesn't matter how many people choose to imploy violence in response

    September 13, 2012 at 7:12 pm |
  18. Kris Craig

    It doesn't matter how vile and disgraceful this filmmaker's rambling is.

    September 13, 2012 at 7:12 pm |
  19. Kris Craig

    There is no "free speech versus hate speech". All hate speech is protected by free speech so long as it doesn't contain any non-protected elements like threats.

    September 13, 2012 at 7:11 pm |
    • Portland tony

      Courts have determined that not all hate speak is protected as we have seen thru convictions of individuals under anti-bullying laws and some racial discrimination and intimidation laws as well.

      September 13, 2012 at 8:55 pm |
  20. Kris Craig

    test

    September 13, 2012 at 7:11 pm |
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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.