The Arab Backfire: How Freedom of Speech Can Really Suck Sometimes

We are now in Year Two of the movement that everyone has decided is called the Arab Spring. But some nations have fallen short of the republican march: Syrian violence has hit genocidal levels, Yemen is still in the midst of violent outbreaks, and Iraqis are seeing factionalism reminiscent of Saddam’s reign. And these past two weeks, the world witnessed yet another dark chapter — what could be called the Arab Backfire — and it has deeper implications than simple extremist backlash.

“The Innocence of Muslims” is a movie directed by a former American government informant named Nassoula Bassely Nakoula also known as Sam Bacile. You can watch the entire full-length feature on YouTube. In it, the Prophet Mohammed is portrayed as some sort of molester-turned-false-zealot, violent in nature and sly in deception. And because of this bizzaro flick, much of the Muslim world has undergone Islamist blowback, burning American flags and effigies of President Obama. This raises the question: How dangerous is the right to freedom of speech in such a fragile environment?

Once the movie caught fire, the Obama administration—still in recovery from the deadly assault on Libyan ambassador Chris Stevens—immediately sought to squash the controversy at its roots: The Department of Justice made requests to YouTube to take the video down and Google shut off access to it in Egypt and Libya. The administration quickly adopted a political version of Shaggy’s “It Wasn’t Me” and distanced itself from its own citizenry’s racism. However, in the millennial age where the freedom of speech is louder than ever, it becomes extremely tough to plug every hole from which opinionated sewage flows.

Soon after the uprising exploded, the French magazine Charlie Hebdo printed a satirical cartoon that depicted the Prophet Mohammed – a crime in the Muslim faith, even though the upper echelons of the faith have since denounced its members’ reaction. In the European country with the largest Muslim population, the French government scurried to close down 20 of its own embassies in the Middle East out of fear that the flame ignited last week would spread. Luckily, no protests have occurred as a direct result of the cartoon (so far). But, to quote the Daily Beast, “we get that it’s satire but now is really not the time.

As the protests continue to roar – the most recent being yesterday in Pakistan’s Islamabad, where thousands promised to leave after the U.S. Embassy was burned to the ground – the blowback is a whole other story. What is left to analyze, however, is the notion that private expression can have dire public consequences. In other words, just how much can we clamp down on our own viewpoints and what can be considered a “clear and present danger?” It is a question that has baffled legal scholars since World War I and, in the digital age, is now more prevalent than ever.

We were given a piece of this puzzle yesterday when a California judge ruled that the controversial movie did not have to be taken down from YouTube per the request of Cindy Lee Garcia, an actress in the movie who apparently had no idea what she was getting into when she signed onto a movie called “The Innocence of Muslims.” YouTube attorneys used the company’s exclusion from third party takedown orders as its go-to argument; this means that the federal government will have the same luck as Garcia. Only the movie’s creator, the ever-elusive Mr. Nakoula, can order its removal from the video-sharing portal.

With that being said, we are left with a sticky First Amendment situation. Was the judge’s ruling the best for the public’s interest? Regardless of the loopholes in the Interwebs, does the term “social media” provide an be-all and end-all to arguments over free speech? The answers to these questions are still yet to be seen as the protests abroad spell trouble for both innocent bystanders and American lives abroad. We’re undergoing a bloody battle over disputing volumes in the 21st century – if the Arab Spring proved the potential of people power, the Arab Backfire has shown just how unsettling that power can be for all of us.

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