It’s getting hard to keep up with developments surrounding “The Innocence of Muslims,” the YouTube video that ridicules the Prophet Muhammad and has sparked violent protests throughout the Muslim world. On Tuesday, Egypt announced that it had issued arrest warrants for several Americans connected with the film’s production and distribution, including Florida Pastor Terry Jones, who promoted the film. Jones was last in the news for putting the Quran “on trial” and threatening to burn it. Egypt’s action followed Germany’s announcement that it would forbid Jones, who has been invited to speak by far-right political parties, from entering the county. The Interior Ministry argues that allowing the “hate preacher” in the country would upset public order. So that’s another country the pastor must cross off his vacation list.
Then, yesterday, the French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, entered the fray over the film, running a series of cartoons mocking the Prophet. The French government, which had asked Charlie Hebdo not to run the cartoons, responded by announcing that it would close embassies in twenty countries this Friday as a precaution. The Foreign Minister, Laurent Fabuis, said the cartoons were “a provocation,” and called on “all” people — by “all,” Fabius presumably had in mind particularly Charlie Hebdo‘s editor, Stephane Charbonnier — “to behave responsibly.”
For his part, Chabonnier is unrepentant. Already under police guard as a result of an earlier episode in which his magazine ran a caricature of the Prophet, Charbonnier says he sees a double standard developing in France, according to which it is considered acceptable to mock some religions but not others. “We have the impression that it’s officially allowed for Charlie Hebdo to attack the Catholic far-right but we cannot poke fun at fundamental Islamists,” he explained. It’s an interesting point that other commentators, including in the US, as making, too. Charbonnier should be calling his lawyer. Unlike the US, France has laws that ban speech that insults a group because of its religion. In 2006, in fact, Charlie Hebdo was prosecuted when the newspaper reprinted some of the infamous cartoons of the Prophet that had appeared in a Danish newspaper. In that case, Charlie Hebdo was acquitted on the ground that the cartoons insulted terrorists, not Muslims generally. It wouldn’t be surprising if Charlie Hebdo faced prosecution again now.
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Speaking of Germany, the Chancellor also made some interesting and troubling remarks about the limits of free speech regarding this film (see http://alturl.com/mz2mv). An anti-Islam group wants to show the movie (is there actually a movie to show) in Berlin, and the Chancellor has made noises about finding a way to prevent this. Interestingly, the leftist Social Democratic Party as well as the Greens were quite critical of Merkel’s comments. The French example is exactly why laws punishing religiously motivated hate speech are a bad idea. The publisher is of course correct that there is a double standard regarding how such a law is being used. The law, as the French seem to be using it, turns into a kind of hecklers veto where the government charges the speaker in order to prevent a violent response to the speech. Not good.