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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. Fredo

    Violence to protest someone else's speech is tyranny, at it's worst. I don't agree with you .. I find what you say offensive ... so I'm going to resort to violence? Really?

    That's the lamest excuse for oppression ... widely used by those who want to control the thoughts and speech of others.

    Screw them. I don't care how offensive they found the film ... they're living in the freakin' stone age.

    September 12, 2012 at 5:42 pm |
  2. LBINDEED

    Why won't people just settle down?? Stop the hatred. Stop the violence. Settle down. Stop being hurtfully provocative, and stop striking out violently when provoked. Are we beasts? Settle down.

    September 12, 2012 at 5:40 pm |
    • dd

      Stop squirming as I cut through your neck. Riiight. You must be really stupid.

      September 12, 2012 at 5:43 pm |
  3. m123

    Respect for religious freedom is not a cornerstone of American democracy
    Freedom to practice religion is
    You don't have to respect anything, due to free speech
    No one screams when Christians are slammed, so stop apologizing for these Muslim murderers

    September 12, 2012 at 5:39 pm |
  4. AvdBerg

    The Ambassador’s killing was a culmination of the rising tensions and deepening problems between civilizations in a divided world. 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’ and ‘Clash of Civilizations’, 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 12, 2012 at 5:34 pm |
    • Nate

      Or it was the work of a relatively small group of close-minded morons, which the West has its own groups of, who in reality don't represent the vast majority of people who are able to co-exist with their neighbors regardless of their personal beliefs.

      September 12, 2012 at 5:38 pm |
  5. Islam: The religion that goes BANG ! ! !

    We Muslims do not believe in freedom. We believe . . . BANG ! ! ! ! Ooops, misfire on the underwear bomb. Just a bit singed.

    Anyway, as I was saying, freedom of speech in the Moddle East . . . BLAM ! ! ! ! Oh drat, my condom bomb went off prematurely.

    I'll get back to you later.

    September 12, 2012 at 5:32 pm |
    • Sue Rader

      I am absolutely stunned by outcry against the United States over the issue of a film that purportedly depicts Islam in a bad light. While I agree that our freedom of speech should not be stretched to cover “hate” speech, I believe that the bombing of the US Embassy in Libya last night speaks volumes about the hate and “hate” speech that spews from the Libyans, not just the “extremists who used the protests as a diversion” as stated by Dan Gilgoff in his CNN online article. So here are some questions to ponder – Why is it is always the United States that must adapt and change to accommodate the culture and religious beliefs of other countries? When will THEY be held accountable for demonstrating respect for our laws and culture? When will THEY exemplify the tolerance for the United States, and Capitalism and Christianity that they demand for Islam? They desecrate our flag, berate our government, and hate our people. No other religious-practicing country embraces freedom of religion as strongly as the United States. But that freedom is just one of many that we enjoy in the United States – and religious tolerance is no more, or less, valuable than are rights to free speech, to bear arms, to be free from search and seizure, to be presumed innocent until proven otherwise, to be tried by our peers, to have our day in court, to not be imprisoned or fined without cause, to ensure State’s rights, to be free from slavery and involuntary servitude, and on, and on, and on.

      September 12, 2012 at 5:37 pm |
    • Rahul_the_Waffle

      @Sue Rader

      Maybe, you know, if we weren't fighting wars in Muslim countries, that is to say, invading them, f***ing up our drone strikes to kill civilians, going on the occasional shooting rampage and body desecration, and supporting Israel. Not to mention that they're much more invested in their religion than we are.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:59 pm |
  6. Sailor101

    Here is what it boils down to, if I am not mulim and do not follow the islamic religion then the rule that apply to mulims DO NOT apply to me because I am not muslim. So If I want to draw a picture of Muhammed then your wacked out sharia laws do not apply to me!

    September 12, 2012 at 5:32 pm |
  7. jim

    A crusifix in urine is art, so how can this be considered hate speech?

    September 12, 2012 at 5:31 pm |
  8. alain

    I hope everyone read the last three paragraphs of this article.

    September 12, 2012 at 5:30 pm |
  9. Ellen

    Now we can see which politicians go and threaten freedom of speech. Let's see who the traitors are.

    September 12, 2012 at 5:30 pm |
  10. Red Sox

    Muslims and islam just disgust me. There is no place for them in the US.

    September 12, 2012 at 5:28 pm |
    • Nate

      Yeah, we should round them all up along with anyone who supports them, huh? That'll work.

      Oh, and Dustin Pedroia blows.

      September 12, 2012 at 5:34 pm |
    • Drink my Kool-aid

      red sox and the Yankees are a bunch of overpaid kunt smellers

      September 12, 2012 at 5:35 pm |
  11. Drink my Kool-aid

    Mohammed and Jesus lick the great Zeus' ball sac.

    September 12, 2012 at 5:28 pm |
  12. Maxx Goff

    American politicians should not be apologists to Muslim nations and should inform them that American belief in free speech and religion is as virulent as ther belief in their religion and that if that rankles they can stop taking billions of dollars in U.S. Taxpayer money. American politicians and media must not give in to emotional or religious blackmail from peoples we pay to be our friends. If Americans equivocate their beliefs in freedom of speech and religion to kotow to religious terrorists then we will get what we deserve – loss of respect and an American version of a speech and religious T.S.A.

    September 12, 2012 at 5:28 pm |
  13. nottolate

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

    Oh bite me! The term "hate speech" is just a veiled attempt invented by the liberals to stifle free speech.

    September 12, 2012 at 5:27 pm |
    • what?

      "BAWW, liberulls!!!!!"

      September 12, 2012 at 5:30 pm |
    • RealityCheck101

      nottolate – I have not seen the film, but unless it is promoting violence against Muslims, then the film is an exercise of free speech that should not be suppressed.

      September 12, 2012 at 5:47 pm |
  14. cc

    The American value honoring free speech doesn't preclude condemnation of the speech, only that there should be no legal punishment for it. Social punishment, such as ostracism, boycotting the speaker's business, etc is perfectly legal-and fully in accordance with American values.

    September 12, 2012 at 5:27 pm |
  15. Jeff

    And anyone saying that the person should not make such films because they know people will overreact can leave America now. I will not have my country define what can and can't be said because a bunch of third world fanatics cannot control themselves, any more than I will have my second amendment righs ended because inner city gangs misuse it, anymore than I will have my rights to face my accuser denied because it would be too hard for them to relive seeing me for whatever they are accusing me of, etc, etc....

    Rights exist for a reason. Third world fanatics don't like that, that is their problem. Leave the country, don't let them in ours, and they can go on living how they wants to.

    September 12, 2012 at 5:25 pm |
    • Drink my Kool-aid

      Jeff for the win!

      September 12, 2012 at 5:32 pm |
    • Mike

      Jeff, I totally agree. Maintaining our broad rights to and tolerance for freedom of expression is vitally important to maintaining what is great about this country. it is not worth compromising on this value. Anyone should be able to advertise their opinion, and the option of others is to ignore it.

      September 12, 2012 at 5:36 pm |
    • RealityCheck101

      Well said.

      September 12, 2012 at 5:48 pm |
    • CW

      We need more people in this country like you. We will never give up our free speech rights to these 7th century goons.

      September 13, 2012 at 5:07 pm |
  16. Rice

    Eboo Patel is a CAIR member. CAIR is an unindicted terrorist co-conspirator. I am shocked and disappointed CNN would even print the opinion of a terrorist supporter here.

    September 12, 2012 at 5:25 pm |
    • DP

      Rice, you are slandering someone without any proof. You should be more careful about what you say. Yes, you have freedom of speech but that does not come with the right to slander people. You only reveal your complete disregard for the rights of others.

      September 12, 2012 at 5:46 pm |
  17. yonyo

    There are many, many more offensive things on the internet, and if this is their reaction to being trolled that's not promising.

    It's also ironic to use your newly won right to protest to protest the free speech which was necessary to start a revolution to get the rights to free speech and to protest. Where would they be now if Qaddafi had gotten rid of everyone who spoke out?

    September 12, 2012 at 5:24 pm |
    • Rahul_the_Waffle

      For one they wouldn't have that as an excuse because they wouldn't be allowed to see it.

      September 13, 2012 at 1:02 pm |
  18. Bobandy

    mohammed what? plays with penises?

    September 12, 2012 at 5:23 pm |
  19. Perhaps you don't understand.

    "Perhaps" is a troll and a POE. Disregard him.

    September 12, 2012 at 5:21 pm |
  20. JoeSeattle

    Its a well-established historical fact that Mohammed married his youngest wife when she was six, and magnanimouisly waited until she was nine to start raping her. Comment on that Hilary Clinton!

    September 12, 2012 at 5:21 pm |
    • ME II

      What's your point?

      September 12, 2012 at 5:37 pm |
    • Jed

      The same thing happened in the US with Christians, they would "marry" off their kids at very young ages....Try again

      September 12, 2012 at 5:43 pm |
    • CW

      ME II. Are you serious? I guess pedophilia is OK in the 7th century.

      September 13, 2012 at 5:09 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.