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. honestOne

    You cannot read the Koran and conclude that it is not a hateful religion.

    September 13, 2012 at 3:36 pm |
    • Snow

      same goes for the bible as well.. but, whats your point?

      September 13, 2012 at 3:43 pm |
  2. What In The World

    Two things.
    Stop the hate speech and stop getting violent everytime you see something you dont like.

    We all love freedom of speech and its our fundamental right but be careful how you use it.
    If your words hurt almost 2 billion people around the world, there's got to be something youre not doing right.

    Also, getting violent doesnt help. Violence will only make things worse.
    The one who raises his hand loses the argument.

    If we all cannot learn to live together in peace, the future of this planet we call home is in doubt.

    September 13, 2012 at 3:12 pm |
  3. Larry

    This incident thoroughly demonstrates that freedom of speech is never to be absolute. Most importantly the West has no right to impose its values on other cultures just as we would not want them to impose their values on us. In an ever increasingly interconnected world we needed to be more careful about unnecessary provocation. Hate speech such as the video that was posted should be subject to prosecution. It serves no useful purpose in society and is harmful to the common good.

    September 13, 2012 at 3:08 pm |
    • Q2

      Sorry, but yes, freedom of speech *IS* absolute, "Larry". Once you start picking and choosing which speech is permissible, you have begun the slide toward totalitarianism.

      And how is an obscure private citizen posting a video to You Tube in any way "Imposing" western values on you?
      These people are going out of their way to be offended.

      September 13, 2012 at 3:33 pm |
    • honestOne

      If we don't have free speech, we don't have anything.

      September 13, 2012 at 3:37 pm |
    • getmeinhere

      Larry, you don't know what you're talking about. The entire point of the right to free speech is that it is limitless. It's not "the right to free speech as long as it doesn't offend anyone."

      Your argument is that this video serves no useful purpose and is harmful to the common good, therefore it should be banned. We could include almost every popular book, magazine, TV show, and movie under that definition. What is a "useful purpose"? What exactly is "the common good"? Who decides these things? You? Me? Some branch of our government?

      The First Amendment bypasses these hoary questions by letting a person say whatever they like. You individually can decide whether or not what that person has to say has merit. If you don't like it you have the right to speak out against what they're saying.

      September 13, 2012 at 3:42 pm |
    • Peter Grenader

      "Less filling... tastes great"

      Everyone's right here. It's stupid to lobby that the 1st Amendment is protected under international law. Ronmey once again proved himself a judgmental exclusionist and this was just another example of him "shooting first and aiming later" – good call by the POTUS there. Have the foot-to-mouth exploits of Ronmey's European vacation faded from our awareness so quickly?

      It's equally stupid to kill while lobbying that the sacrilege of Mohammed is protected under international law. Obviously the people responsible for this could care less that it isn't.

      Should the bozo who made the film been more responsible? Yeah, probably but in the meantime, we all need to calm down and look at the situation and not the politicking that's come form it, deal with the immediate needs before trying to find the ultimate solution/considering retaliation or suffer the truth that we are as guilty as the people who did this for the same reasons we would be retaliating.

      The state department's statement was a diplomatic one, obviously. It was not an apology. A Republican said at the Press Club yesterday that this is an act of war/ Rolling my eyes I have to say it isn't. When a government attacks, yes. When protestors attack, no.

      Let's all calm down, focus on the immediate needs and forget the politics for a moment.

      September 13, 2012 at 4:03 pm |
    • Larry

      Do you not have libel laws in America? Can you yell "fire" in a crowded theatre? Can you pick up a microphone and tell people to commit violent acts and riot in the streets? Of course there are limits to "free speech."

      September 13, 2012 at 4:46 pm |
  4. tommy

    You either support free speech or you don't. Speech is free unless I judge it forbidden is not free speech. I think all people who talk about hate speech should be silenced.

    September 13, 2012 at 2:55 pm |
    • John Smith

      There is no such thing as absolute free speech. If you yell "bomb" on a plane you will be arrested and punished. Why? Because you may be putting people's lives at risk. Well, we just saw 4 Americans killed as a result of the same type of activity... deliberately putting people's lives at risk with a "hate speech" video. We need to expand and adapt our concept of what is and isn't acceptable according to the world situation we now live in. Fifty years ago there wouldn't have been the same reaction because there was no Internet or YouTube. Other freedoms were restricted after 9/11 and this is another one that needs to be re-examined.

      September 13, 2012 at 3:18 pm |
    • getmeinhere

      John Smith, you are incorrect. It is not illegal to shout "bomb!" on an airplane. I assume you are taking that from the idea that it's illegal to yell "fire!" in a theatre, which is also untrue. At one point that was precedent set by the Supreme Court, but that was later overturned. The current jurisprudence limiting free speech only prohibits defamation, fighting words, and speech that is likely to incite "imminent lawless action."

      If you yelled "bomb" on a plane you'd probably be arrested, but if any charges were filed they would be dropped.

      September 13, 2012 at 4:05 pm |
  5. MyPictureOfMohammad


    September 13, 2012 at 2:48 pm |
  6. Margaret

    This is all just awful. So much hatred fomented. I believe in freedom of speech and religion absolutely. It is fundamental to western values. I think, however, that such deliberate provocation fits the exception that freedom of speech does not allow someone to yell "fire" in a crowded theater. This film maker must have known how hurt many muslims would be, and how enraged some might be.

    September 13, 2012 at 2:47 pm |
    • hinduism source of hindufilthyracism.

      consti tution does not allow some one to provoke other's to violence and first amendment has no reference to protection of deliberate hinduism, criminality of hinduism, provocation in any form, hinduism, absurdity of protection first amendment has no value in support of hinduism, terrorism against Muslim's and Islam. IT DOES NOT. For more visit http://www.limitisthetruth.com/blog.html

      September 13, 2012 at 2:56 pm |
    • honestOne

      Everybody has been deliberately provoked. That is why some great teachers have preached, "Love your enemies." Too bad that such a principle doesn't exist in Islam. The problem with most people is that they haven't read the Koran and discovered how disgustingly violent Islam is and everything associated with it.

      September 13, 2012 at 3:40 pm |
  7. Shine222

    How many people were arrested for displaying a cross in a jar of urine? None. How many were arrested for putting elephant dung on a picture of Mary the mother of Jesus? None. Pictures of Mohammad, Jesus, Buddha, Confuscious, etc. are all allowed in the USA and in general Western cultures. South Park did create an image of Mohammad. There are tens of thousands of images of Mohammad on the internet and things that would inflame Islamic sensitivities. This only shows that the Western and Islamic cultures can not exist together. Fine if we can not live together let us live apart. Muslims should definitely stay off the Western internet as their sensitivities will definately be hurt. The Islamic culture should develop their own internet that is sensitive to their needs.

    September 13, 2012 at 2:41 pm |
  8. sana

    I don't understand why,would,someone create such a film in the first place. Why should mocking ones his,prophet be freedom if speech. Mocking Jesus is just as horrible. Yes we don't retaliate well we are much more controlled. But if you insult a God, son of God or prophet of God isn't it being dishonest to your faith. u r just as part of that sin as the person who created it in the first place. That said don't go on a killing spree. But there should be more laws to protect religious freedom. Just Coz you have feeding of speech or expression doesn't give you the right to hurt Antonia feeling. Isn't that what our parents teach us.. Don't be rude. Be nice to everyone.

    September 13, 2012 at 2:32 pm |


      September 13, 2012 at 2:35 pm |
    • Phil in Wisconsin

      No, no, a thousand times no, especially because whenver someone advocates for more laws to protect freedom of religion, it actually means to restrict someone else's freedom of conscience and freedom of speech. I see you want everyone to be nice to one another. But you can't bring about that nice world solely through laws. Parents teach their children to be nice by modeling behavior, by being nice themselves. The problem here is not, repeat, is not in the West.

      September 13, 2012 at 2:44 pm |
    • Q2

      Reallly? I though 'The Super Bestfriends' episode on SouthPark was hilarious. Jesus, Muhammad, Buddha, Krishna, even nutty Joeseph Smith. I didn't find it 'horrible' at all.

      Think about it, do your really think an ominipotent being would care at all what some backwards human had to say about them?

      September 13, 2012 at 3:13 pm |
  9. Shine222

    The people who act in a violent manner because they are offended are violent. How many art museums were burned down when the picture of Mary the mother of Jesus had elephant dung spread on it? Were all the art directors at the art museums arrested for displaying this image? No. How about the jar of urine with a Christian cross in it? How many art directors were arrested and put in jail for hate speech? None. All religious expression whether it be Christian, Muslim, Jewish is all allowed as long as it is don't vandalizing private property.

    September 13, 2012 at 2:31 pm |
    • A.siddiqui

      Why your free speech only start by insulting the feelings of 1.3 billian people. For a muslim jesus , or moses both are as respectable as prophet muhammad, that is why we never do any thing to insult them. hitler killed millians annocent people because of there religen, was no freedom of speech. when you know it will hurt so many people, is not free speech. I think those who provoked this movie should be tried as killers of american victoms.

      September 13, 2012 at 3:04 pm |
    • Q2

      A.siddiqui, you obviously don't know much about America. Absolutely nothing is above criticism, even above ridicule.
      We release a million times more material critical of Christianity than we do of Islam (Google George Carlin, for starters!).

      September 13, 2012 at 3:20 pm |
    • Q2

      Also A.sid, you should realize, the only people guilty of Killing the Ambassador and other Americans are the *Filthy Murderers* who actually killed them. And if the Quran is correct, they will go to Hell for their actions.

      September 13, 2012 at 3:25 pm |
  10. Earl

    Is any violent act more disrespectful than any non-violent act?

    September 13, 2012 at 2:30 pm |
  11. Shine222

    Why did the Islamic media air a movie or film that was offensive to Muslims? Why did Muslims watch a film they thought was offensive? We are grown up and should act that way.

    September 13, 2012 at 2:28 pm |


      September 13, 2012 at 2:31 pm |
  12. Shine222

    The Islamic world and the West are incompatible. Free speech is part of Western culture it obviously is not a part of Islamic culture. There are millions of items on the internet which would not be sensitive to Islamic culture. Muslims should stay off the Western internet and build their own Islamic sensitive internet.

    September 13, 2012 at 2:22 pm |


      September 13, 2012 at 2:27 pm |
  13. Necron99

    Free speech is just that HATE LOVE SO ON .. rename free speech if your attempting to take away free speech. ID10T

    September 13, 2012 at 2:22 pm |
  14. Shine222

    The internet is a Western invention that the Islamic culture should stay off of so it does not inflame their Islamic sensibilities. Western culture and Islamic culture obviously are not compatible. In the West everything is mocked just look at South Park. South Park did show all the prophets. This is Western culture here. Muslims should move to Muslims countries and stay off the Western internet. If Muslims want a Muslims sensitive internet they need to develop one and stay off the West's so their sensibilities are not injured.

    September 13, 2012 at 2:18 pm |


      September 13, 2012 at 2:22 pm |
    • Armageddon

      I think we might need a giant meteor hurtling toward Earth in order for all of us to come together to save this place.

      (it's there folks, though, and it's name is SELF-RIGHTEOUSNESS)

      September 13, 2012 at 2:39 pm |
  15. hinduism source of hindufilthyracism.

    consti tution does not allow some one to provoke other's to violence and first amendment has no reference to protection of deliberate hinduism, criminality of hinduism, provocation in any form, hinduism, absurdity of protection first amendment has no value in support of hinduism, terrorism against Muslim's and Islam. IT DOES NOT. Article speaks for it self, Judeo-Christian verses Islam, to be exact, hindu Judaism and it's off shoot Christianity, or hinduism, denial of truth absolute, pagan self center ism, secular ism, and it's off Shoot, hindu Mithra ism, denial of truth absolute savior ism, based on hinduism, racism labeled as Christianity, infidelity to truth absolute God,Allah, verses Islam truth absolute 360, Allah, foundation of existence proven by Quantum Physics and foundation of teachings of Messengers of Allah, truth absolute, Moses, Easu, (Jesus) and Mohammad peace be upon them. Or to say, hindu, denial of truth absolute Judeo-Christianity verses Truth absolute Allah, foundation of Islam or darkness verses light, hindu sanatans, pagan goons verses messengers of truth ab solute, devil verses God, truth absolute.
    it is hinduism ignorance to mix water with oil, darkness with light, or devil, denier of truth absolute, make part of truth absolute. Hindu Judaism, filthy self center ism was and is never part of truth absolute, and never will be, even though hindu's ignorant s may try to make it look like by their hindu Judaism, filthy secular ism, way of denier of truth absolute to hind, fool humanity.
    hinduism, criminality labeled as freedom of speech has no justification, because speech is expression of soul, desire of a person to be negative or positive. hinduism, negativity of soul, desire of a person is denial of truth absolute and intended hinduism, terrorism, invitation to just retribution in kind, To claim immunity from persecution is just an excuse to justify hinduism, criminality by soul desire pleasing hindu Judaism, criminal self center ism, subject to rightful retribution in kind. Rendered by Muslim's to hindu criminals of Judeo-Christian faith. For more visit http://www.limitisthetruth.com/blog.html

    September 13, 2012 at 2:15 pm |
    • saywhaaa

      This post is, hinduism, indication that it's author, hinduism, is certifiably, hindiusm, insane! hinduism

      September 13, 2012 at 2:34 pm |
    • Margaret


      September 13, 2012 at 2:43 pm |
    • Kevin14618

      What does Hinduism have to do with this discussion?

      September 13, 2012 at 3:25 pm |


    September 13, 2012 at 2:14 pm |
    • Know What

      Thank you. Please work hard for peace.

      September 13, 2012 at 2:22 pm |
  17. Just call me Lucifer

    Man.... these psycho-religious zealots are a real drag. Lets do this.... lets kill them all, and whatever deity resurrects its followers is declared "The Most Supremest Dude Ever". Fair enough?

    September 13, 2012 at 2:13 pm |
  18. Brock

    Religion always seems to be the source of needless violence and death.

    September 13, 2012 at 2:01 pm |
    • George

      So you're telling me that the drugs wars in South America is about religion too? Maybe its just plain greed and the willingness to cause harm for selfish gain. If you hate religion then hate it but don't blame it for every problem out there. That makes you no different than these muslim people who attacked these innocent people just doing their jobs. Some of them were of their own nationality. Religion is not to blame – narrow minded people are!

      September 13, 2012 at 2:06 pm |
    • Kevin14618

      You forgot about the tens of millions of people that were murdered by communists in the name of liberating them in the 20th century.

      September 13, 2012 at 3:29 pm |
  19. George

    This uprising has nothing to do with that film. This was already planned and is a perfect scapegoat for their activities. The real reason is in revenge for the killing of Al Q's #2 guy. You can read that on other reports. Your opinion doesn't matter! It was bound to happen sooner or later. This is all about retaliation not a movie. The movie only stirs them up a little like slapping a bee hive would stir up bees. The bottom line is that its straight out juvenile to kill somone who doesn't agree with you. Whether you're Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu or whatever...people have a personal right not to agree with you. And don't bother posting a whole lot of whining and crying stories about how we've done them so wrong, etc. Who cares? Every day millions of people are done wrong. Get over it! It's a part of life. Be the bigger man and clean up your own act first. Once you're a perfect example then throw all the stones you want. My heart goes out to the ambassador's family though and for all who have suffered needlessly. Like any situation like this, you have opportunist who are stirring up crowds – same as in LA during the Rodney King riots. Yeah, it was wrong that they beat the snot out of the guy, but does looting from your own neighbors really solve the problem? NO! Does it make sense to blow up an embassy and kill people if they tell others your superhero is a fictional character (you get the point). Nuff said...its a farce anyway. Its all about revenge.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:55 pm |
  20. Phil in Wisconsin

    Here's another example where the whole left/right divide breaks down, or should. In the U.S., "hate speech" is a narrowly defined and much contested legal category. No way in Hades the U.S. will accept non-U.S. actors' definition of hate speech, and the career of any American politician advocating this will be short indeed. Those in the Muslim world who've used violent protest and murder to defend their religion against the charge it is, inter alia, inherently violent are kinda going the wrong way about convincing anybody else. The non-Muslim world, and not just the U.S. and the West, also get the idea that Muslims are violent. How does this behavior help that perception? In fact, the Muslim rubes and yahoos behind this violence need to know that what they've done make it less, not more, likely that attacks on Islam will be regarded as hate speech.

    In fact, this whole discussion elevates something to profundity which is actually much more banal at its core. The people who made this stupid film - and if you even see a still from it you'll see how stupid it is - are a bunch of hillbilly yahoos. The Muslims overseas who get their righteous on by attacking the U.S. are also a bunch of hillbilly yahoos. This is not about hate speech, but about stupid speech, and the stupid response of idiots to stupidity.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:55 pm |
    • T-Max73

      Phil, I wholeheartedly disagree with you. Islam, Christianity, and Judaism (the three monotheisms) make incredibly large claims for themselves. You can call these "religions," but what they truly are is totalitarian systems of thought. They, unlike political ideologies, are seen as being immune to criticism, inquiry, condemnation. It makes no difference if you see the film as "stupid" or the actors as "hillbillies." What is truly at stake here is the freedom to criticize a religious ideology and philosophy that claims it is in communication with the divine-that IT knows what is true and what is moral. Islam, Christianity, and Judaism's foundational texts contain mandates to kill, butcher, enslave, and subjugate those who either disagree or who do not believe their claims. I think, given the enormous arrogance of such claims, they INVITE scrutiny, and it is the moral role of all concerned people to question and investigate these systems of thought in any way necessary in order to examine their usefulness to the world. If you disagree, then you'd better think of a quick and painless way to surrender to the forces of God, Allah, or whatever you are TOLD to call Him. Peace.

      September 13, 2012 at 2:08 pm |
    • Phil in Wisconsin

      @T-MAX73. I'm unclear on how you "wholeheartedly disagree" with me. I appreciate that there's atheists - and some of my best friends are atheists! - who think that religiously-motivated violence is just one more in a bill of particulars that discredits all religions in general. But the more general the indictment, the more vulnerable it is to particular refutation. Here, you seem to be saying that the totalitarian nature of religions like the three monotheisms explains Muslim violence. But if so, why aren't there riots in the West whenever there's some obscure Muslim critique of Christianity? There's certainly a space for intelligent discussions of the nexus between the nature of religious belief and the roots of violence based on that belief. Unless I misunderstand you or hear more from you, I can't count yours among them.

      September 13, 2012 at 2:22 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.