Violent protests have spread across the Middle East and North Africa in response to an anti-Islamic film, The Innocence of Muslims, that was posted on YouTube.
To call the film a piece of third-rate dross would be too lenient. Aesthetically the film is patently awful, and features a cast who can’t act and a set that jumps and bumps around the screen when it most definitely shouldn’t. The film also mocks and insults Islam. It portrays the prophet Muhammad as a philanderer and a child molester who gets a kick out of massacring non-believers. The fact that it’s badly acted seems to make it even viler, for some reason.
The content of the film is beside the point, however. If you believe in free expression you must defend the rights of filmmakers to make such films. Unfortunately a small minority of extremists in Egypt, Libya and Yemen have used the film as a pretext for assaulting American and Israeli embassies and a number of people have been killed, proving that the apparent sanctity of divine revelation trumps any concern for human life for a small number of the pious.
Instead of unreservedly condemning the violence and defending free expression, however, a number of Western commentators have sunk into a swamp of half-baked liberalism that appears to believe only in the necessity of committing cultural suicide as hastily as possible. One example was Robert Fisk who, writing in the Independent, claimed the people who “set the Middle East on fire” were those who produced the film, rather than those who lit the matches. As well as disenfranchising the vast majority of Muslims who, when they learned that Islam had been ridiculed in this way, didn’t go out and violently assault the first American they came across, this line of argument sidesteps the fact that monotheism has historically responded violently when it has encountered criticism. All the more reason to criticise, comrades!
It also gives ammunition to the forces of the far-right, who will gleefully welcome the proposition that Muslims are too thin-skinned to live alongside free expression, when in reality this applies only to a small number of fanatics.
In a society where ideas are exchanged freely, anyone who is not a sociopath will at times take offense. The idea that people can ever be sheltered from hurt feelings is, I hope to everyone reading this, an absurdity that only makes sense if one wants to live in a society resembling that of Nineteen Eighty Four. Bullies who use violence to silence critics of religion should never be appeased by socialists. The idea that free speech is being “abused” whenever someone actually tests it should also be seen for the idiotic fallacy that it is. The freedom of religious and political groups to proselytise is intrinsically connected to the right of the apolitical and non-religious to blaspheme.
In much of the region affected by the protests religion has historically propped up some of the most misogynistic, homophobic and reactionary forces. Take away the right to ridicule and mock authority, textual authority in this instance, and everything else is detail, including the right of the Muslim working class to satirise and ridicule its rulers.