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. ScottCA

    I think we should create a new holiday, and call it parody Mohammad day, in memory of those who died for exercising free speech. Everyone should draw or create some form of arthritic parody of Mohammad on that day.

    September 12, 2012 at 9:23 pm |
  2. saggyroy

    ALL RELIGION IS WONDERFUL: If it isn't the Muslims, it's the Catholic priests, if it isn't the priests, it's the Westboro Baptist Church, if it isn't Westboro, it's Northern Ireland, if it isn't Northern Ireland, it's Tibetan monks immolating themselves, if it isn't someone bombing an abortion clinic.......

    September 12, 2012 at 9:09 pm |
    • saggyroy

      If it isn't a presidential nominee wearing magic underwear, it's people committing mass suicide....

      September 12, 2012 at 9:11 pm |
    • hinduism source of hindufilthyracism.

      hinduism criminality of hindu's, deniers of truth absolute, forcing people to commit hinduism, terrorism against hinduism, terrorism.visit http://www.limitisthetruth.com/blog.html to learn more.

      September 12, 2012 at 9:12 pm |
    • ScottCA

      Religion helping people justify the murder of everyone and anyone. Its a total moral and mental cop out where you don't have to think or feel bad about anything.

      September 12, 2012 at 9:15 pm |
    • Angela Victoria

      And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me, John 12:32. Lifting up Christ, not putting down ancient beliefs and mores is the true teacher. Jesus was about sacrifice and forgiveness not wholesale murder. It is the exact opposite.

      – King James Bible "Authorized Version", Pure Cambridge Edition

      September 12, 2012 at 9:42 pm |
  3. ScottCA

    They want to kill over this? These guys are clearly not playing with a full deck. They need to be placed in mental asylums.

    September 12, 2012 at 9:07 pm |
    • ScottCA

      South Park makes fun of everyone equally. They even made fun of Richard Dawkins. Parody is an important logical tool meant to allow people to reconsider even their firmest of beliefs and examine the logic within them. Jesus and Christians clearly take the brunt of south parks jokes since it takes place in an American town.

      September 12, 2012 at 9:14 pm |
  4. why?

    Why should I have to respect a religion I don't believe in? FREEDOM OF SPEECH SHOULD BE ABSOLUTE!! "I disagree with what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it."

    September 12, 2012 at 8:56 pm |
    • ScottCA

      I am with you. People can say what they want, but no one has the right to be violent to another ever not even if they are offended.

      September 12, 2012 at 8:58 pm |
    • hinduism source of hindufilthyracism.

      Stay in your limit hindu ignorant or to bust your mouth is right of a person, you open your mouth in hinduim ,criminality. visit http://www.limitisthetruth.com/blog.html to learn more.

      September 12, 2012 at 9:06 pm |
  5. ScottCA

    Where the ignorance comes from that leads to all the killing we see in the world.

    September 12, 2012 at 8:56 pm |
    • ScottCA


      September 12, 2012 at 8:58 pm |
    • ScottCA


      September 12, 2012 at 8:59 pm |
    • ScottCA


      September 12, 2012 at 8:59 pm |
    • ScottCA


      September 12, 2012 at 9:00 pm |
  6. ScottCA

    If you want to understand why all this killing keeps happening.

    September 12, 2012 at 8:51 pm |
    • ScottCA

      part 2

      September 12, 2012 at 8:52 pm |
    • ScottCA


      September 12, 2012 at 8:52 pm |
    • ScottCA

      Part 4

      September 12, 2012 at 8:53 pm |
    • ScottCA


      September 12, 2012 at 8:54 pm |
  7. nope


    September 12, 2012 at 8:42 pm |
  8. Bootyfunk

    ridiculous. hate speech is part of free speech. people should be able to say anything they want without fear of violence against them. i'd even stand up for the idiots in the KKK on hate speech. i'd also tell them what complete ignorant morons they are, but i wouldn't tell them they shouldn't be allowed to say what they want.

    "I may not agree with a word you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."
    - Voltaire

    September 12, 2012 at 8:41 pm |
    • Bootyfunk

      this is the fault of religious zealots. to blame someone that because of something they said they should die - is insane. this was religion at its worst.

      September 12, 2012 at 8:42 pm |
    • nope


      September 12, 2012 at 8:43 pm |
    • ScottCA

      I am with you in regards to free speech. We should be allowed to say whatever we want. But no one should be justified in committing an act of violence in retaliation to words.

      September 12, 2012 at 8:47 pm |
    • snopes says

      nope to nope

      September 12, 2012 at 8:58 pm |
  9. ScottCA

    Religion is a poison destroying the world.
    We will all be better off when this parasite is destroyed.

    September 12, 2012 at 8:39 pm |
    • nope


      September 12, 2012 at 8:42 pm |
    • Bootyfunk


      September 12, 2012 at 8:43 pm |
    • nope


      September 12, 2012 at 8:43 pm |
    • nope

      I hate being stupid.

      September 12, 2012 at 8:44 pm |
    • Bootyfunk

      i hate you being stupid, too.

      September 12, 2012 at 8:46 pm |
    • ScottCA

      Nope it is not your fault that you inherited poor genes from your parents and lack the intellect to understand the natural world. It is after all just the result of evolution, another topic you don't understand. Just remain silent and let those of us with better brains do the thinking for you.

      September 12, 2012 at 8:49 pm |
    • nope

      I don't have any parents.

      September 12, 2012 at 8:58 pm |
    • stupid followed to its logical conclusion

      becomes atheism

      September 12, 2012 at 8:59 pm |
    • truth be trolled

      stupid followed to its logical conclusion wrote: "becomes atheism"

      Stupid results from being a disgruntled ex Evangelical Fortune Cookie writer.

      September 12, 2012 at 9:09 pm |
  10. anon

    A decade after 9/11-even the most intellectually challenged American should have understood that in the part of the world where there is instability and power vacuum-the slightest excuse can be used to rally people for a cause-and the Prophet is a powerful "cause' -that can be misused by political forces.....So, any American who irresponsibly puts the lives of his fellow citizens in danger by using such provocation is a traitor to his country.

    September 12, 2012 at 8:35 pm |
    • ScottCA

      From its first conception faith based religion has been used to justify killing and rally people to commit murder in the name of a god who does not exist. Religion is a tool to manipulate the population.

      September 12, 2012 at 8:45 pm |
    • CW

      Yawn. Bring it. A traitor to this country stifles our free speech in order to appease someone a world away.

      September 13, 2012 at 5:17 pm |
  11. David Steven

    This irrational reaction by Islam is the perfect reason to STOP ALL AID to the Middle East. Cut our losses and get the heck out of the region. Let them self destruct and kill each other all they want, just keep us out.
    No money, no military aide, no humanitarian aide NOTHING. Bring our troops home and let Israel and Iran and Syria do what ever they want.

    September 12, 2012 at 8:30 pm |
  12. Jane

    Hmmmmm... I wonder if anyone has written a book or made a movie criticizing Christianity or Jesus? Of course not or there would be rioting Christians murdering everyone, right? Christianity has taken hit after hit however, the God of the Jews and the Christians says that vengance is His and He will repay. Too bad "Allah" doesnt see it that way but commands his people to kill anyone who disagrees or criticizes Islam. They will continue to act this way bc their religion teaches them that violence and force is the answer. There is no "making friends" with Muslims.

    September 12, 2012 at 8:27 pm |
    • Bootyfunk

      the bible says to KILL g.ays, non-virgin brides, disobedient children and anyone working the weekend. the bible supports slavery throughout. the bible says a woman that is r.aped must marry her r.apist.

      sounds like christianity is just as disgusting as islam.

      September 12, 2012 at 8:45 pm |
    • nope


      September 12, 2012 at 8:46 pm |
    • nope

      My days are empty.

      September 12, 2012 at 8:49 pm |
    • nope


      September 12, 2012 at 9:00 pm |
  13. andrew

    Some Americans – the ones who made this stupid video – are cruel. Some Muslims – the ones who murdered the ambassador – are cruel. Both sets of cruel people should die in their sleep. It's these cruel people who cause the deaths of many, many others. They don't care who dies because they're always right. They'd just as soon die as to admit they caused others to die. So, that's why I want them dead: they get others killed and ignore it, in fact they love it! Like Charles Manson – they love death! So, as soon as we grow the gonads to make these cruel people die, we ALL will suffer – and die – because of these warmongers, who never go fight – they just talk, talk, talk, talk, talk!

    September 12, 2012 at 8:12 pm |
  14. BobS

    I support free speech, however, that does not mean I need to stand silently in the face of abhorent, hateful statements. The neo-nazis had a right to express their views, however, I and other people of good conscience have the right to tell them that those views are not the views of us and hopefully the vast majority of Americans. I think the same apply to the anti-Islamic attacks.

    September 12, 2012 at 7:56 pm |
    • CW

      Feel free to go stand in front of the embassy. The protesters will treat you kindly, I am sure.

      September 13, 2012 at 5:18 pm |
  15. ScottCA


    September 12, 2012 at 7:48 pm |
    • ScottCA

      Cute video, but we don't need to place words in mittens's mouth to make him look like a fool. He already looks like an imbecile when he just speaks.

      September 12, 2012 at 8:41 pm |
  16. Arvoasitis

    No freedom or right is absolute. If you shout, "Fire!" in a crowded theater in the U.S.A when there is no fire (to use a classic example) and cause a stampede, you may be charged with a criminal offense. If you mock Muhammad or the Quran in a Muslim country, or publicly elsewhere, in such a way that deadly rioting can be expected, freedom of speech is no defense,

    September 12, 2012 at 7:40 pm |
    • James

      Totally disagree. Your logic if flawed. If we followed that train of thought then there would only be "limited" speech.

      September 12, 2012 at 8:19 pm |
    • Nclaw441

      So Christians need to react violently to critiques and they will become unlawful?

      September 12, 2012 at 8:25 pm |
    • Arvoasitis

      Free speech is limited everywhere by slander laws, libels laws, hate laws, and other civil and criminal laws. If Christians erupted in organized violence against some depiction of Jesus, there would undoubtedly be some sort of restrictions imposed on such depictions (either formally or informally). Even if you have the right or freedom to say or do something, it may be irresponsible to say it or do it.

      September 13, 2012 at 7:46 am |
    • CW

      Too bad you don't understand the example you cited.

      September 13, 2012 at 5:19 pm |
    • Arvoasitis


      Care to elucidate?

      September 13, 2012 at 9:17 pm |
  17. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things

    September 12, 2012 at 7:33 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 12, 2012 at 9:03 pm |
  18. Jeremy from London

    Here's a link to an authoritative source – the Quilliam Foundation was founded by a former Islamic fundamentalist:
    It says: "We at Quilliam believe the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi was a well planned terrorist attack that would have occurred regardless of the demonstration [about the film], to serve another purpose. According to information obtained by Quilliam – from foreign sources and from within Benghazi – we have reason to believe that the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi came to avenge the death of Abu Yaya al-Libi, al-Qaeda’s second in command killed a few months ago". So the attack had little to do with the (stupid and provocative) film.

    September 12, 2012 at 7:31 pm |

    It was not about a film or hate speech...it was about 9/11. Anyone who thinks otherwise is kidding themself. I am not sure who began stating this was about a film but it seems awfully coincidental it occurred on 9/11.

    September 12, 2012 at 7:22 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      And you have what information to back up this statement? Do you work for the CIA? The NSA? Are you in Black Ops?

      September 12, 2012 at 8:50 pm |
    • stevieray

      That got it back in perspective. Anyone with a working brain and watched the attack knows it had nothing to do with a film. It happened on 9/11 and the crowd was chanting, "We are Osama bin Laden!", and not "We are killing because of a movie!". Whoever said it was because of a movie is only using deception to soften Americans' view of islam. Pull your head out of your @$$ if you doin't see it.

      September 12, 2012 at 10:12 pm |
  20. Freedom

    There is Freedom OF speech. and then there is Freedom FROM discrimination.

    If you what you're saying conflicts with this, then you are in the wrong.

    September 12, 2012 at 7:20 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 with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.