For more than two centuries, the United States have carried a reputation regarding the freedom of speech: they are the free-ist country in the world. Except for exceptional circumstances, everyone in the country is entitled to express publicly whatever they think. This right has become entrenched in the country’s tradition and is, rightfully, a pride for its citizens. It has even become so evident that it is now almost a weakness for the country. In fact, the freedom of speech has gotten the Americans used to seeing the worst excess, the worst caricatures, and still they remain tolerant of it.
This is the case of the movie called “The Innocence of Muslims”. In this movie, the so-called director has tricked actors into playing a caricatured vision of the prophet Mohammed and then has done voice-overs to change the dialogues. His movie looks like the Monty Python’s Life of Brian, minus the humour. Clearly, this movie was designed by an anti-Islam extremist with the goal to provoke other extremists, ones that support radical Islam. Sadly, this man has reached his goal and people have died on its consequences. Of course, this man cannot be held responsible for the deaths, including the US ambassador in Libya. But he can be blamed for it, because he is the spark that launched days of violence in the Middle East.
But the media is also to blame. Without the media, the spark that constituted this ridiculous movie would never have set fire to the explosive fuel in the Middle East. It was through the media that an amateur movie has become so unpopular in the entire Islamic world.
The Internet has, of course, become a means of communication through which extremists on both sides have gained ground. Now, the Internet has filled up the geographical distance between both sides. But it still does not have enough power to launch such violence like what happened in Benghazi ten days ago.
The traditional media still plays a role. Only they can have this resonance all over the world to relay the news from America or Europe to the Middle East. The problem is that traditional media did not have, in this case, the intelligence to understand that the polemic over the movie was only a dispute between both extremist sides. By making this story the top news for about a week, they have increased both radical movements at the expense of any moderate approach. On one side, they have associated any critical position over the movie with an attack on the freedom of speech or even a support to the radical Islam. On the other, most positions defending the maker of the movie are caricaturing the Muslim world as medieval with no tolerance on religious matters.
The story hit new lows in France. Last Wednesday, the weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo deliberately chose to publish a caricature of the prophet Mohammad in its front page, polarising the opinions even more. While Charlie Hebdo claims they chose to do so in defence of the freedom of press, it was nevertheless a huge commercial success for the paper which sold out in a few hours. Friday, chief editor Charb defended his position in Le Monde by explaining the militant atheist position of the staff. However, this position has put the Muslim community in France in a tough situation, having to separate themselves from the threats expressed towards the newspaper.
This issue is problematic for the Western democracies. On the one hand, we cannot accept any infringement regarding the Freedom of Speech. On the other hand, we cannot tolerate that this freedom is used for hateful purposes either. In a globalized world, each word, each declaration has a meaning and the media bear a responsibility by choosing which word, which declaration to emphasise. In this case, some within the fourth power have clearly lacked discerning and chose to put a light on the tension between two extremist factions. The only light shed from these dramatic days is the demonstrations that happened all over the Muslim world: people were out in the street telling the opposition to stop the violence in Benghazi. But rarely has the media reported this.
Hugo Argenton is a French Columnist for La Jeune Politique. His views are his own and do not reflect the views of La Jeune Politique.