“Innocence of Muslims” Filmmaker Released from Prison

How time flies. It hardly seems possible that almost a year has passed since last September’s controversy over an offensive You Tube video, “The Innocence of Muslims.” The video led to protests at American embassies in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East, drew the attention of the US President (“The future must not belong to those who slander the Prophet of Islam”), and had serious people questioning American free speech principles. Things have gotten much worse in the Middle East since then–in Egypt today, there are reports of massive violence in Cairo and the burning of churches across the country–for reasons that have nothing to do with a video that, one suspects, gets very few hits any longer. At one point, the US Government asserted that the video had led to the storming of the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, and the murder of four Americans there, including the US ambassador. But that explanation is no longer operative, and the media seems mostly uninterested in finding out what really happened. What difference at this point does it make?

One person for whom time has not flown, however, is the video’s American producer, Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, also known as Mark Basseley Youssef. He has spent the past year in federal prison. Nakoula has been in jail for violating parole on a prior fraud conviction, but there can be little doubt that as a practical matter authorities seized him because of the controversy over the video. Federal authorities have now moved him to a halfway house to serve the remaining weeks of his sentence. The location is undisclosed, presumably to protect Nakoula. In an interview this week with CNN, Nakoula says he was shocked at the allegation that his film caused the Benghazi attack. He also–much less convincingly–expresses surprise that people would think his video was anti-Islam. Nakoula will be on probation for a few more years and will also need to face civil suits by the film’s actors, who allege he misled them about the video’s content.

WEIRD Values

At a lawyers conference I attended recently, the conversation turned to “The Innocence of Muslims,” the offensive YouTube video that has sparked riots throughout the Muslim world. “Why do they react this way?” a partner at a major law firm asked, referring to Muslim societies. The idea that people would take such offense at an inept video, and blame American society in general rather than the individuals who produced the film, was incomprehensible to this American lawyer: “We would never react that way.” The other lawyers agreed.

This conversation came back to me this week as I read Jonathan Haidt’s very worthwhile new book, The Righteous Mind. Mostly, the book explores the different moral psychologies of American conservatives and liberals.  (Haidt argues that the differences are largely innate — “pre-wired,” he says — thus confirming Iolanthe’s famous observation that “every boy and every gal/ That’s born into the world alive/Is either a little Liberal /Or else a little Conservative!”). One chapter, though, compares American moral intuitions with those of other societies. America, Haidt says, has what psychologists call a WEIRD culture — Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic. WEIRD cultures have a strong “ethic of autonomy”: they hold that “people are, first and foremost, autonomous individuals with wants, needs, and preferences” which, barring direct harm to others, should be fulfilled. In such cultures, as Jean Bethke Elshtain remarked at First Things’s annual Erasmus Lecture this week, “loyalty” principally means “being true to oneself.” The First Amendment reflects this ethic: it promotes the widest possible range of individual expression and advises offended listeners to avoid harm by turning away.

Largely through American influence, WEIRD values increasingly dominate international human rights discourse. This is ironic, because WEIRD cultures are global outliers — and America is the farthest outlier of all. Most of the world does not see autonomy as the most important value and does not privilege individual expression to the extent we do. Many cultures, Haidt says, have an Continue reading

Movsesian on Laws Prohibiting Religiously Offensive Speech

CLR Forum Director Mark Movsesian appeared this week on Voice of America’s “International Edition with Avi Arditti and Kate Woodsome” to discuss the regulation of religiously offensive speech in the United States, Europe, and around the world. Click on the player below to listen. 

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