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. Atheism is Great for Kids and Grown-Ups Too!

    It's really best for all people including children to have an agnostic approach to god, and an atheistic approach to all religion. It keeps things simple for kids, and lets them be all that they can be. They just need to be taught that some things, like all religion, were just made up by salesmen and politicians from long ago**; and that other things, like god, we really don't know a damn thing about.

    Atheists have strong minds and don't need a religion. Sometimes, religious folk run and hide their misdeeds within their religion (and by doing so, they disserve society). Sometimes, religious folk are easily offended when someone mocks their make-believe characters – and, as we can see they can get really CRAZY!

    Religions are just big old evil clubs – each trying to out do each other and inspiring hate and division along the way (disguised as love).

    So instead of praying to make-believe people, get a good cup of tea and go on and sit down and collect your damn thoughts. My goodness.

    ** (yes, charlatan spam started long before the Bible; what would make you think it hadn't?)

    mama kindless

    September 15, 2012 at 12:23 pm |
  2. free


    September 15, 2012 at 10:00 am |
    • cnnmunshi

      this is not free speech but "free and extreme hate speech" that has implications on national security, putsamericans in harms way and jeopardizes our interests. It should be banned/prohibited jus like any other potentially disruptive hate speech.

      September 15, 2012 at 12:22 pm |
    • Geek Girl

      Religion would have a hard time if hate speech were banned.

      This quote from the Quran denigrates women – would this be banned under your laws?
      Quran 4:34 – "Men are in charge of women... and what they spend from their wealth. So righteous women are devoutly obedient... But those wives from whom you fear arrogance – first, advise them; then if they persist forsake them in bed; and finally, *beat* them. But if they obey you seek no means against them."

      And what about this gem? (Quran 3:106)
      "On the Day some faces will turn white and some faces will turn black. As for those whose faces turn black, to them it will be said, "Did you disbelieve after your belief? Then taste the punishment for what you used to reject."

      September 15, 2012 at 7:03 pm |
    • Damocles


      The problem you have is how are you going to decide what is 'hate' speech? If I simply say 'I don't like the Islamic faith', is that hate speech? If you say that it is, then I fear that any speech can be banned, if you say no, then in all honesty that is all that the movie was saying.

      September 15, 2012 at 7:10 pm |
  3. Ehmer


    September 15, 2012 at 5:19 am |
    • free


      September 15, 2012 at 9:59 am |
  4. kamanakapu

    Iroquois precepts as explained to George Washington, James Monroe, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, et al.

    Whereas all have the right to speak freely and truthfully,
    no one has the right to lie or be a part of any lie.

    Whereas all have the right worship Spirit in any way they choose, no one has the right to impose their
    beliefs upon others or induce others to believe
    as they do.

    September 15, 2012 at 3:12 am |
  5. 2357

    Islam = god of hatred
    Atheism = hatred of god
    A match made in heaven, someone get them a room.

    September 15, 2012 at 2:19 am |
    • Manfred

      good one! lol!

      September 15, 2012 at 9:44 am |
    • Huebert


      Must you air your ignorance in public?

      September 15, 2012 at 12:24 pm |
    • Geek Girl

      This is a prime time to remind you that I don't hate Santa Claus, or the Tooth Fairy, or the elves living in my garden...so why would I hate god?

      September 15, 2012 at 7:09 pm |
  6. gainde

    freedom of speech yes but but respect first .

    September 14, 2012 at 10:25 pm |
    • Geek Girl

      Islam doesn't seem to respect our values much.

      September 15, 2012 at 7:10 pm |
    • Damocles


      Respect is all fine and good, but I don't have time for some believers to respect my right to say what I want to say.

      September 15, 2012 at 7:14 pm |
  7. freedom

    freedom of speech is not to insult the feith you not belong to

    September 14, 2012 at 10:07 pm |
    • Geek Girl

      Why not?

      September 15, 2012 at 7:11 pm |
  8. Nadia

    This is a reply to Susan apparently I'm a Muslim woman and well educated -hence I speak English – I'm not covered from head to toe nor beaten day & night by my MEN nor am I abused over anything thankfully as there are many women like me but women over here are stereotyped into one picture and that's it please your killing with the old cliche covered harassment & abused comeon I thought we were over that...to my country's age we've as woman got rights in the last 10 years what you American women fought for over 50 years so that's really old news...and we are still getting there

    September 14, 2012 at 8:19 pm |
    • Educated Catholic

      Nadia I completely agree with you. People like Ol Susanna, however, enjoy basing irrelevant arguments off false and outdated stereotypes. However with the freedom of speech we all enjoy in the United States we unfortunately have to deal with Comments like hers.

      September 15, 2012 at 12:10 am |
  9. Nadia

    Maybe freedom of speech trumps when it's right or proofed or even have bases not when it's hateful and ignorant and has no respect in anyway to other people sensitivities can you say anything about the Jews without being called an antisemite if not prosecuted for it ...You CAN say what you wish over there just take in consideration the reactions to what you say wether it's violence or prosecution...

    September 14, 2012 at 8:08 pm |
    • Allie

      Yes, freedom of speech includes anti-semitic speech. You cannot be prosecuted for saying something anti-semitic. In fact, you can say whatever you want about whatever religion you want. Christianity gets mocked and insulted quite regularly in the U.S. So this has nothing to do with Islam specifically, it's about people being so used to living under tyranny, they don't understand what's allowed in a free society.

      September 15, 2012 at 9:44 am |
    • Geek Girl

      Aristotle said that the basis of a democratic state is liberty. To empower me, give me a voice.

      There will always be someone who is offended by something I write. If I am offended, I do not take someone's right to offend me away but I challenge what he or she has said with reason, wit and humor.

      September 15, 2012 at 7:53 pm |
  10. Truth is Here

    Free speech always trumps unless it directly incites violence- and not merely because it causes violence because there are folks too close minded and ignorant to realize here in the west we will SAY WHAT WE WISH, and it's not any business of theirs what we do or say.

    September 14, 2012 at 7:53 pm |
  11. Nadia

    And to be fair ambassador Stevens & the people who died with him died without reason regretfully the acts of violence that happened all around the Muslim world was what the people behind that trailer were aiming for and apparently they got what they exactly aimed for...

    September 14, 2012 at 7:47 pm |
  12. Nadia

    Freedom of speech is considered an American way of life not the " others " way of life but respect for all religions is a "world" wide thing the stupid cheap provocative trailer was nothing to free speech specially considering the people behind it it WAS made to fuel the Islamic country -as if they already need more fueling- prophet Mohammed is a religious icon for all muslims so you want "others" to respect the " American freedom of speech" you start by respecting their religions their cultures & their cultures wether u like them or not just don't try to force THIS kind of speech freedom on the world

    September 14, 2012 at 7:39 pm |
    • Susanne

      Nadia, many Muslim men find your hair provocative, and if you dare display arms and legs in summer – basically you're asking for abuse and harassment! So respect their religion: let your husband beat you (koran 4:34 allows it) and don't 'provoke' men with your wicked hair and flesh!!!!

      September 14, 2012 at 8:03 pm |
    • Alert

      Obviously, you are not familiar with:
      "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."
      Voltaire, (1694 – 1778)

      September 14, 2012 at 11:56 pm |
    • John

      Wrong. Either there is freedom of speech or there isn't. There is no middle ground. Do muslims respect Christians freedom of speech? No because the Quran says Christians are infidels and therefore, sub-human and need not be respected. Instead, muslims stone, imprison, torture and be-head Christians. Some serious double-standard. The world will never be at peace until Islam is vanquished from the Earth.

      September 15, 2012 at 1:38 am |
    • deserthermit

      Non sense. I am not required to respect any ones religion. Religion has ruined the world for thinking people. For people who would never use violence to stop someone from saying what they wish. Religion is a stone age way to view the world and should be subjugated to the history section of the library.

      September 15, 2012 at 7:30 am |
    • Allie

      "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."
      Voltaire, (1694 – 1778)

      Freedom of speech applies even to disrespectful, distasteful, ugly, and ignorant speech- in fact, those are the cases that test the very concept, because it's easy to say you respect free speech when it's something you agree with it. It's much harder to defend the right of someone to say things you vehemently disagree with- but they still have that right, just like you have the same right. Well, like you would, if you lived in a free society, anyway.

      September 15, 2012 at 9:39 am |
  13. Mike Henry

    My question, how much blood money is this going to cost? How much are 4 American lives worth, it is time to stop pointing a finger and useless speech neither mean anything. Stop the flow of money to these countries, stop the support, and take action of consequence for any action against Americans. Send a message of strength, not of cowards.

    September 14, 2012 at 6:54 pm |
  14. Mary

    Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Religion..It is my understanding that our soldiers are not allow to have their own religious items, such as a Bible, no religious literature, (unless its Islam) while they are in the Middle East! The democracy in the Middle East will never look like ours, it will never include tolerance for another religion or freedom of speech. We need to face the facts and stop funding our enemies!

    September 14, 2012 at 6:24 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      It's your "understanding"? Based on what? What's your source of this "understanding"?

      September 14, 2012 at 6:27 pm |
    • bossandnova

      Mary, that's ridiculous. The United States Chaplain Corps is busy and available to bring comfort to our troops. Whoever told you that was trying to inflame you, just like whoever made that movie was trying to inflame the Muslims. Can't you see they are trying to make us all fight one another, when we all believe in the same concept of a just God? Meanwhile, they walk off with all our money...

      September 14, 2012 at 9:35 pm |
    • John

      Mary's understanding is true. My brother spent two years working in Saudi Arabia. That is the way it is there. You can be imprisoned there for simply carrying a Bible. You can be put to death for teaching Christianity. Do we do that to muslims in our country? No. Instead we permit public schools to teach our children about islam but not about Christianity. Tom Tom and bossandnova are flat out wrong! It is they who don't have the facts.

      September 15, 2012 at 1:43 am |
    • 0G-No gods, ghosts, goblins or ghouls

      John, John, John! Mary's allegations were about what soldiers are allowed to do, not civilians.

      September 15, 2012 at 1:58 am |
  15. John Rgood

    “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.

    This is a typical response from a Muslim enjoying the good life in the U.S. hypocritically stabbing it in the back all the while. Go some where else then, don't stay here.

    September 14, 2012 at 6:21 pm |
    • Archer

      LMAO, Thank you, couldnt have said it better myself.

      September 14, 2012 at 7:40 pm |
    • John

      hen those countries don't attack us and our allies, then they will be free from bombs falling on their heads. Try telling the islamic terrorists to stop raining bombs on the heads of Israelis. The UN has spoken. Israel has a right to exist in peace. Palestine is the home of Jews. It always has been except for the time of terror when muslims invaded Israel in the 8th century until recent times. We should have learned about the violent nature if islam a thousand years ago, when the Saracens gave the Jews in Palestine the choice to convert or die. If we fail to heed that message in our time, the world will soon be plunged into a living hell.

      September 15, 2012 at 1:50 am |
    • 0G-No gods, ghosts, goblins or ghouls

      But the various christian cults were ent!tled to force people to convert to their brand of bullsh!t?

      September 15, 2012 at 1:54 am |
    • John

      @ OG, name one Christian denomination (outside the Catholic Church) that has ever forced anyone to convert to their faith. By the way, I am offended by your assertion that there are Christian 'cults'. Where do you live? I'd like to bomb you. Its only fair.

      September 15, 2012 at 2:04 am |
    • 0G-No gods, ghosts, goblins or ghouls

      Why exclude the RCC? Is bombing those that disagree with you modern day christian doctrine? I doubt jesus, if he existed, would be proud of you. Re: cults, you should use a dictionary when you don't actually know the meaning of a word. Cult is a perfectly good word to describe all religions.

      September 15, 2012 at 2:09 am |
    • John

      @ OG, you should try READING what others have written before making a fool of yourself. I excluded the RCC expressly because in its past it has terrorized people into accepting its teachings. However, I know of no other Christian denomination that has terrorized people into accepting its teachings. The RCC has a lot in common with islam, but way better organized. Try reading CAREFULLY. Obviously you aren't familiar with common English usage or you would have noted my sarcasm. I just figured you were such an ardent defender of islam that you wouldn't mind if I challenged you to name one instance where a Christian denomination (other than the RCC) has ever terrorized anyone to join. You can read?

      September 15, 2012 at 2:32 am |
    • 0G-No gods, ghosts, goblins or ghouls

      Google "forced conversion to christianity" – you will find several instances of forced conversions by other christian cults. JewishEncyclopedia.com lists a number of modern day attempts of forced conversion, some by protestants cults.

      September 15, 2012 at 2:51 am |
  16. Humanity4All

    Al we had to do was get Eric Holder in front of the camera and say that this is not acceptable and we will pursue all those involved and they will be punished to the fullest extend of law...

    September 14, 2012 at 6:06 pm |
    • John

      Yeah, buddy. What a POS he is!

      September 15, 2012 at 2:05 am |
  17. Humanity4All

    Imam is almost correc, however, I dont like the fact that he is sperating the muslims into Moderate and exteremist. There is no such thing as Moderte or Extremist. Exteremist are also muslims who are just agered by the events and dont know how to react other than becoming violent, which is by no means acceptable. The moderate dont exist... I wll not read his book becuase his factions dont exist and dont make sense..

    September 14, 2012 at 6:05 pm |
  18. sjohn90929

    I'm not sure this is a left-right issue. There are many liberals - such as myself - who stand firm on first amendment rights, and won't bend because of this.....Yes, the anti-Muslim film is disgusting and inflammatory, and I could even understand (but not condone, obviously) a revenge attack or a Fatwa on the filmmakers, but singling out an entire nation for the actions of a few, and burning down embassies is not proportional - burning down an embassy is, in fact, an act of war...

    In any case, we have first amendment rights, so it doesn't matter. But I think offering up a relativistic viewpoint, that the American nation as a whole is as guilty as the extremists who are burning down embassies and killing people - is not a good idea or the right direction to move in....

    September 14, 2012 at 6:01 pm |
  19. Brian

    I am an atheist, and I won't go into how much all of this bothers me. But whether or not this is hate speech is a difficult one to consider. As an Atheist I understand that people have a personal connection with God. You can almost say that God in their mind is and extension of themselves. So from a neurological point of view, attacking a God is taken as a personal attack. And in that way it could be considered hate speech. I don't think I would mind if an exception was made in law that said attacking ones God is considered hateful due to this personal connection. Now if an Atheist quotes something from the bible that puts God in a bad light, that is ok ofcourse. He is only stating the claim made by the religion itself. And he should be allowed to say that God was bad for allowing or doing what he claimed in the Bible. But making things up no matter if they are loosly connected to claims in a book could be considered hateful.

    September 14, 2012 at 5:37 pm |
    • Alert


      While you are confused 'whether or not this is hate speech is a difficult one to consider, Qur'an is clear:

      Qur’an 9:29—Fight those who believe not in Allah nor the Last Day, nor hold that forbidden which hath been forbidden by Allah and His Messenger, nor acknowledge the Religion of Truth, from among the People of the Book, until they pay the Jizyah with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued.

      Qur’an 9:111—Surely Allah has bought of the believers their persons and their property for this, that they shall have the garden; they fight in Allah's way, so they slay and are slain.

      Qur’an 9:123—O you who believe! fight those of the unbelievers who are near to you and let them find in you hardness; and know that Allah is with those who guard (against evil).

      Qur’an 48:29—Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah, and those who are with him are severe against disbelievers, and merciful among themselves.

      September 14, 2012 at 6:20 pm |
    • John

      So Brian, who gets to decide what is 'loosely' connected to laims in a book, or are there degrees of 'loosely'? Say, Brian, you could just set yourself up as the Supreme Arbiter of hate speech! Wouldn't that be cool! Oh, and I liked the way you provided your own little 'get-out-of-jail' card...its OK to denegrate the Bible if you are an atheist. Or, you could just go suck an egg.

      September 15, 2012 at 2:11 am |
    • Geek Girl

      Brian, the Atheist Club has just revoked your membership.

      Why can't I make stuff up that's "loosely connected to claims in a book"? Isn't that just literary interpretation? If I claim that Shakespeare's McBeth was really about an alien invasion of the Earth (not sure how the 3 witches fit into this interpretation), I might be totally bonkers for interpreting it that way but it's my interpretation and it's as valid (but a tad bit more stupid) as any other.
      And what's this about "from a neurological point of view"? If you criticize the skirt that I'm wearing right now – should I take it as a personal attack and then burn down your embassies or behead you? I really, really, like my Escada skirt and from a neurological point of view, there is a personal connection between me and it.

      September 15, 2012 at 8:12 pm |
  20. independentlyowned

    The real issue here shouldn't be whether it's free speech or not. Of course it's free speech. Even the KKK has freedom of speech. The issue should be the horrendous excuse for a "movie" this YouTube video is. 1/2 of it's dubbed over, the acting is horrendous, there's not discernible plot whatsoever, and was the biggest waste of 13 minutes of my life. The fact that Muslims are getting offended over THAT just makes this whole situation all the more ridiculous.

    September 14, 2012 at 4:16 pm |
    • John

      I'm thinking you just don't get it. Muslims will take any excuse for violence – its in their nature. Ever hear the story about the scorpion and the turtle? If you don't thnk thse people are whacked-out, consider this. Obama's administration is the most Islam-favoring adminstration in our history and these idiots are putting him in a tough position. They should back off since many Americans have already been deeply offended by Obama's Islam-butt-kissing.

      September 15, 2012 at 2:16 am |
    • Geek Girl

      independentlyowned – Exactly!

      John, what on earth do you mean by "In their nature"? I really do want to know, if only to satisfy my curiosity about the intellectual prowess of the Republican party base.

      September 15, 2012 at 8:17 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.