Speech, Religion, and Politics: Where is Our Red Line?

By Piper Bayard

My intelligence operative writing partner, Jay Holmes*, is not at liberty to issue a statement on the current “insult to Islam” situation, but thanks to Freedom of Speech, I am under no such restrictions.

The Muhammed Movie Trailer has stirred up quite a lot of passions in America and around the world. That’s because religion, like politics, is visceral and rational discussions of either are rare. Blame is flying in a chaotic whirlwind with nowhere stable to land. Let’s take a moment to calm our roiling viscera and look at some facts.

America has no established religion. America has Freedom of Speech. That’s what allows people of many religions to co-exist. Differing religions that produce violent conflict in other parts of the world co-exist peacefully here because Americans chose at the nation’s founding to value Freedom of Speech above the individual ability to do violence in the face of offense. It is part of the Social Contract, and it is based on the notion that human life and peace are more important and productive than any verbal insults.

Currently, Muslims are attacking our US embassies and consulates around the world because an Egyptian Coptic Christian living in America made a parody film of Muhammad and posted it on YouTube. The violence claimed the lives of four Americans, including the US Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens.

US Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens, image from US Dept. of State

Some Americans place the blame for those deaths squarely on the filmmaker and his backers. “He should have known Muslims would riot and kill people.” I would disagree for two primary reasons.

The Supreme Court has always had the right to regulate the time and place of speech. However, that is generally applied where speech is calculated to incite violence by Americans toward other Americans. A film parodying Muhammad that is rife with intentional religious insults is far more similar to the hateful speech of the Westboro Baptists, and the Westboro Baptist message of death to America and our soldiers has been deemed protected under the First Amendment.

The Westboro Baptists are every bit as offensive to Americans, to soldiers, and to actual Christians as the parody film of Muhammad is to Muslims. As a general rule though, Americans can count on each other to not riot and kill people, even in the face of grave and sacred insult. That is Freedom of Speech in practice. To hold the filmmaker responsible is to hold Muslims to a lower standard of civility and behavior than the average American.

This condones the idea that Muslims cannot reasonably be trusted to behave in a mature and civilized fashion. If I were a Muslim, I would be insulted by that notion. Also, by the same reasoning, shouldn’t the grieving soldiers’ families be excused if they decide to kill some Westboro Baptists? Is that the law we want in our land?

Speaking of the filmmaker, I’ve heard numerous theories about who was backing him. Was the Coptic Cigar just a Coptic Cigar? Were right-wing Republicans intending to highlight Obama’s weakness in foreign policy? Was this a plot by Israel? Was it sponsored by Iran as a way of inciting Muslims to violence to mask other, more insidious agendas on the part of that Shi’ite country?

Let’s look at Israel first. Israel certainly has plenty of schemes to go around, as do all countries, but this wouldn’t be a very smart plot for Israel. It had nothing to gain by simultaneously pissing off the entire Muslim world around it above and beyond what its mere existence already does. This chaos is a much more fruitful opportunity for so many other players.

So let’s turn to Libya. The vast majority of the Libyan people want America in their country. They are highly educated for the region with a literacy rate of over 70%, which is better than that of many American cities. With increased education comes awareness of the rest of the world and the ability to conceive of and participate in a nation rather than just a tribe. In other words, Libya has a chance at molding itself into nation of peace and prosperity.

Image from BuzzFeed: 15 Photos of Libyans Apologizing to Americans

There are many factions in Libya, some of them foreigners from other Middle Eastern countries, who want to see the new Libya fail. Those countries and organizations are always on the watch for some excuse to stir up hatred against the US and break our diplomatic ties.

Unorganized, spontaneous mobs in the Middle East generally throw rocks or shoot up the place a bit. They do not have mortars and rockets and do not perform organized attacks on US embassies and consulates. The nature of the attack on our US consulate in Benghazi would indicate that a foreign predatory country or organization like Al-Qaeda is behind it, and that Libya is as much a victim of that attack as the US is.

On Sunday, the US Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice told Jake Tapper on ABC’s “This Week” that the Libyan protest was completely spontaneous and a copycat of Egyptian protests. However, Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich), former FBI agent and House Intelligence Committee Chair, tactfully pointed out that there were too many coincidences to conclude the Benghazi attack hadn’t been planned in advance. Arizona Sen. John McCain, top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, added that, “Most people don’t bring rocket-propelled grenades and heavy weapons to a demonstration.” I can only say that Rice will play this however the White House tells her to, and that this is the same UN that put Gadhafi in charge of Human Rights.

Iran, Yemen, and Egypt are another story. Unlike Libya, those countries are capitalizing on this moment.

Protests in Iran, image from news.kuwaittimes.net

The Iranian government is using this poorly-made parody film to incite Shi’ites around the world to violence, something their mullahs do at the drop of a Koran. Iran has openly declared in the past that it wants to turn all Muslim nations into its satellite states. It’s hardly a stretch to see Iran behind the attack in Libya, either as a well-laid plot or simply an opportunistic taking.

Another gem is Yemen. The Yemeni government didn’t simply fail to protect the US embassy. Yemeni security police were seen encouraging the few hundred protestors to pass through their check points to get to the embassy. These were the same police who were supposed to be protecting the embassy. In fact in some cases, they even joined the protestors.

These Yemeni security forces are still controlled by ex-Yemeni President Ali Saleh’s family. The Saleh faction wants Al-Qaeda defeated, but it also wants to generate anti-Western hysteria to help stall any democratic reforms in Yemen. It’s worth noting that over two million people did not protest in Sana’a in spite of the efforts of the Saleh-controlled security police.

Then there is Egypt. The Egyptian government, run by the duly elected Muslim Brotherhood, was too busy cashing our billions in aid money and begging Europe for more to bother to use its massive security forces to fulfill its diplomatic obligation to protect our embassy on their soil. In between panhandling in Europe and chumming with the wanted Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi is verbally condemning the violence. However, he also threatening America, saying that the Islamic prophet is “the red line.”

Egypt is demanding that America ignore her own laws and values of Freedom of Speech and punish the filmmaker who made this parody film. Questions hang in the air . . .

Will President Obama make it clear that America is a country that stands behind its Constitution and the Freedom of Speech guaranteed in it, even when people are insulted by that speech? Or will Obama compromise our First Amendment to appease the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt and punish the filmmaker for his legal activities? Will America continue to aid and do business with countries that refuse to honor their duty to protect our embassies?

Where is America’s “red line”? I wish I knew.

In the meantime, I appreciate this rational appeal from Syed Mahmood, “A Muslim’s Reaction to Muhammad Movie Trailer.”

All the best to all of you for remaining rational in the face of visceral reactions.

© 2012 Piper Bayard. All content on this page is protected by copyright. If you would like to use any part of this, please contact us at the above links to request permission.

32 comments on “Speech, Religion, and Politics: Where is Our Red Line?

  1. Jane Sadek says:

    My husband was born in Egypt and his family are Copts. He is of the opinion that the primary problem is that the average man on the street in the Middle East doesn’t even know what freedom is. They understand it as something better than they have, but they have no idea how it works. Sort of like wishing you had a bicycle, but not having a clue how to ride it. He thinks that educating them would be the best solution, but agrees that developing the right delivery system for that education is a sticky wicket – also education takes time, time that our diplomatic personnel don’t have when the protesters are banging at the gate.

    • Piper Bayard says:

      I would agree. “Freedom” is a concept hard to define and means something different to everyone. When we went into Iraq, I saw an interview with a Shi’ite cleric who said, “Now we are free to make the women cover up. We are free to ban the TV and the music . . .” His concept of “freedom” was to impose his religious and social beliefs on everyone around him. Unfortunately, this is a common approach to freedom.

      The etymology of the word “free” is a big foggy, with the most clear source in a google search maintaining that it originated with the German “friede” which means “peace.” That peace was attained by people giving up something to others in a disagreement. That is what happens in the Social Contract that allows people to co-exist, even though when pushed most adherents of any religion will admit to believing they are the only ones who are on the “right” path.

      Thank you for sharing your husband’s perspective.

  2. Scot Bayless says:

    So, once again, Piper Bayard proves herself more qualified to lead than the *cough* candidates we’re being given to choose from…

    Seriously, this is a more thoughtful and accurate piece on the latest bit of madness from the Middle East than I’ve read or watched since the attack in Benghazi. Thank you so much for adding at least one rational voice to the blooming cacophony of spin/rage/exploitation that pathetic excuse for a film has stirred up.

    Your comment about the Shi’ite cleric is a telling one – one that perfectly illustrates one of the great conceptual challenges of freedom. The vast majority of people look at freedom through their own lens, essentially casting the notion as ‘MY freedom’. But of course that’s not the point. Real liberty is ‘YOUR freedom’, even if I think you’re an idiot.

    Keep up the great work.

    • Piper Bayard says:

      An excellent point, Scot! Fighting for freedom isn’t about fighting for our own freedom. It is about fighting for the freedom of those who disagree with us, too. “Real liberty is ‘YOUR freedom,’ even if I think you’re an idiot.” I hope you will consider serving in my administration. 🙂

  3. Seriously, Piper…is there any way we can get you to run for president next term?

  4. EllieAnn says:

    This post helped clear up so many questions I had. It seems you always give a fair account of the facts. I love that about your posts. It also incited a lot of questions in me, most of which I can’t even verbalize yet. Thanks so much for the facts!
    I totally agree about that filmmaker’s right to make that film. No matter how stupid or wrong or non-factual what he’s saying is, I still believe 100% of his right to say it.

    • Piper Bayard says:

      Thank you, Ellie. Even this morning as I see riots across the globe, what I’m seeing is groups like Al-Qaeda and Hezbollah and countries like Iran laughing their asses off at this glorious opportunity that has dropped in their laps. Those mobs are likely paid labor and damn cheap because “mobbing” is an actual career occupation in many foreign countries, much like hired mourners were in European countries in the past. That means it’s even more important that we hold our Freedom of Speech line because this goes far beyond religion and sensibilities, it is a matter of our security as a nation and the position we choose to hold in the world.

  5. Did you see the State Dept video of that poor man? It just haunts me, the picture of him smiling and talking about his excitement in going to Libya and then the pictures of his body, knowing he died horribly. My heart goes out to his family. I’ve been praying for them. It’s so hard when we lose a loved one, but in such a way? Shudder. That said, I don’t see a line being drawn to defend our freedom of speech and going after the filmmaker is a horrible response to this. They should have had you write their official responses.

    I was heartened to see that so many in Libya were appalled by what happened. Their freedom is under attack as well. What is that Chinese curse? May you live in interesting times?

    • Piper Bayard says:

      I did not see the State Dept. video. Would you have a link for it?

      Like you, I don’t see any defense of America or of our Constitution or principles of Freedom of Speech. We watch our leaders and holy figures persecuted in the most vile ways around the world on a regular basis and say nothing because we recognize that is the price of peace. I want to see our leaders step up and be proud of America instead of constantly apologizing for her and compromising with countries and groups who see our principles and our civility as weakness.

      Like you, my heart goes out to the Libyan people who are once again being used so badly.

      • I saw it on Fox News, though they said they got it from the state dept website. I wonder if they would have taken it down? Was so heart rending. He talked about how much he looked forward to sharing our history and such with the Libyan people. He looked SO young! I just sick to my stomach when I think about how he died. And those with him! Their families must be suffering so much.

  6. Kim Griffin says:

    I believe the attacks were planned. I believe that it was intended to start on 9/11 to send a message to America that, although Osama bin Laden is dead, his minions and his mindset and his hate for us all is not. The film was just a convenient opportunity to lay blame.

    If our President ~ the Commander in Chief ~ does not stand by the constitution and our 1st amendment rights, he is denigrating all Americans, including and especially those who have fought and died and those who continue to fight for our freedom and those rights.

    Great post!

  7. Dave says:

    Great post. If we don’t stand firm on the principle of freedom of speech, who will? I’ve just been trading posts with a person that insists that the film constitutes sedition. I’m sure that it does – in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Yemen, etc. Here it constitutes a load of crap. I’m going to get together with the kids in the living room this evening and riot.

  8. Julie Glover says:

    The video is clearly an excuse for certain radical, violent Muslims to attack America. As a Christian, I don’t like people insulting Jesus, but I don’t attack them…even verbally. They have a right to their opinion of my religion and any other. Freedom of Speech must remain a cornerstone of the American society.

    I think I’m going to go put on my Bayard/Lamb shirt now. You totally need to be in the White House.

    • Piper Bayard says:

      Which is exactly why Freedom of Speech is essential for people to co-exist. It isn’t that Christians take religion any less seriously than Muslims, it is that the West tried religious rule a few hundred years ago and found that it sucked for everybody. After centuries of drowning and burning people who dissented or insulted Christ or sinned in certain ways, etc., we all agreed that simply ignoring each other’s insults would promote a better life experience for everyone. And it works!

      Thank you for your support. I’m working on convincing my family about that White House, but my husband isn’t ready to quit working as an engineer to vacation around the world all the time on the public ticket as my First Mate. 🙂

  9. My heart goes out to the families whom have been affected by these tragedies. My heart also goes out to the peaceful Muslims (who are of the majority) who are vilified by these acts.

    • Piper Bayard says:

      It is indeed a shame that we hear so few voices of the peaceful Muslims. I suppose the Westboro Baptists are likewise some of the loudest “Christians” on the planet. I think it would be very helpful if organizations like CAIR Cared as much about the American as they do about the Islamic in the Relations. For myself, I would never want anyone who is peaceful and embracing of our freedoms to suffer because of any flavor of extremist.

  10. KM Huber says:

    The Westboro comparison is so apt, so clarifying. Like many who commented here, I offer gratitude and praise for your cogent post. You know you always have my vote.

    Always, this blog provides a refreshing perspective. You and Holmes remind us that we can be better than we are. Thank you both for that.


  11. Serious stuff here. Everyone needs to tread with care. Great post

  12. Running from Hell with El says:

    Excellent piece, Piper. I especially appreciate the discussion on the Westboro Baptists. You’re exactly right about the gift that the First Amendment gives to even the most obnoxious Americans. And you make a great point about the usual lack of order and clear direction within a mob. I hadn’t thought of that. I’m sharing this on my FB Page now.

  13. Tahsina Syeda says:

    I hail from Bangladesh, where the government has blocked Youtube until Google agrees to remove/block the so called movie. The general understanding of the civil society about this step is, it is an over-cautious measure taken to reassure that some issue-hunting group don’t use this situation to cause chaos here. It is like saying to the public, “The government is veeeery sincere about trying to preserve the feelings of our people from being hurt, and we are blocking the whole youtube! So no one needs to cause any trouble trying to protest against anything, right?” A few minor political parties did organize a day of demonstration, almost a month after the outrage in middle east began, kind of like an afterthought, like they felt they should not miss this chance to demonstrate against the US, as US is a pretty good target for demonstration and outrage all over the world (though i have no idea how that movie had anything to do with the US as a state or a nation). Among the general people, beside some condemning the movie on facebook or blogs, i did not see much reaction. Also, a vast part of the population, not being internet users or fully informed about the outside world, remained oblivious of the whole thing. All this make me question whether the violence that happened in some countries was spontaneous! Were these incidents really a spontaneous reaction from the general public, or were they organized by opportunist groups wanting to use this controversy for their own gain? Now that it is confirmed that the attack on the American Embassy in Libya was actually a terrorist attack, this question is now being asked a lot more.

    • Piper Bayard says:

      Thank you for your thoughtful response. I’m delighted to hear what you’re seeing on the inside. And you are certainly correct to question whether the other embassy protests were organized by groups that are hostile to the US.

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