By Ingrid Burke, RAPSI

On September 8, the trailer for a low-grade and (at that point) almost universally unknown film aimed at discrediting Islam was aired by an Egyptian television network. The footage had been uploaded in June, but attracted little attention prior to its televised debut. The trailer, which depicts the Prophet Mohamed as something of a pervert, evoked a rage that soon boiled over in the form of anti-American protests staged at US embassies and consulates in Egypt and Libya. A brutal attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, claimed the lives of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other diplomatic officials. Protests soon spread like wildfire.

By most accounts, the film is outrageous. Still, its silencing comes at the cost of free speech. Its very existence thus calls for a fundamental consideration of the competing interests of the freedom of expression and the freedom to exercise the religion of one’s choice. It would be nearly impossible to come up with legislation actively favoring one of these freedoms that would not at least stifle, or at most totally undermine the other. Thus a look at the reactions of various governments to “Innocence of Muslims” can shed telling insight into the way these competing interests are balanced around the globe.

Russia’s priority: combating extremism

Russian federal prosecutors hastily filed a claim with the court seeking a verdict that would declare the film “extremist.” The Office of the Prosecutor General’s ultimate goal is the imposition of a ban on the video’s dissemination throughout the country.

According to an official Council of Europe translation of the law on extremism, among the extremist activities sought to be regulated in Russia are the provocation of religious discord and propaganda proclaiming the inferiority of a particular religious group.

The law further prohibits the mass dissemination of extremist materials, thus vesting prosecutors with the power to go after Internet Service Providers (ISP) and media outlets offering a platform for the film’s distribution. 

Pending the verdict, the federal media watchdog Roskomnadzor has urged Russia’s print and Internet media outlets to block access and to refrain from providing links to the film. At the time of this writing, the film is still available via YouTube in Russia.

Meanwhile, some of Russia’s oblasts and territories have spearheaded their own prohibition initiatives. Prosecutors in Khabarovsk Krai announced Thursday that they had warned the region’s top nine ISPs of the illegality of facilitating the distribution of any extremist content, including “Innocence of Muslims.”

Prosecutors in Chukotka, Altai Republic, Khakassia, Kabardino-Balkaria, Omsk Oblast, and Ingushetia have initiated similar actions. Rostelecom, a major Russian telecommunications provider, blocked YouTube access in Omsk Oblast on the basis of a prosecutorial request, but resumed access after several hours. Citing the absence of a court order, Ingushetia ISPs refused to comply with its prosecutor’ request.

Those that view blasphemy as worse than stifled expression

A number of other countries have taken similar stances. International Business Times reported Thursday that Google, which owns YouTube, has blocked access to the video based on individual requests from the governments of Egypt, Libya, India, Indonesia, and Malaysia, in their respective countries. According to Bloomberg, Pakistan and Bangladesh have taken matters into their own hands and blocked YouTube entirely.

Even German Chancellor Angela Merkel is contemplating a ban of sorts, according to Der Spiegel. Extreme right-wing political group Pro Deutschland announced that it had obtained a copy of the film in its entirety and vowed to hold a public screening of it in November. When on the coattails of violent protests that had stormed the German embassy in Khartoum, Sudan Merkel was asked about the group’s threat, the normally-avid defender of free expression responded that the screening could be prohibited if it was found to pose a threat to public security, adding, “I can imagine that there are good reasons for this.” Still, freedom of expression concerns will prevent her from wholly prohibiting the film in Germany.

Meanwhile Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad issued a statement lambasting the West for its refusal to prohibit “Innocence of Muslims”, charging that, "in return for (allowing) the ugliest insults to the divine messenger, they — the West — raise the slogan of respect for freedom of speech," a defense he then berated as a clear deception, according to an AP report.

Freedom of expression is a priority for the US

In the aftermath of the Benghazi consulate attack that claimed the lives of Ambassador Stevens along with three other officials , the terms “disgusting and reprehensible” have featured prominently in any mention of the film by such high-ranking officials as President Barrack Obama, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, and US Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice. Still, freedom of expression concerns have prevented the administration from imposing an all-out ban on the film. Speaking to this point, White House spokesman Jay Carney explained, “We have made clear that we find it offensive and reprehensible and disgusting, but we… cannot and will not squelch freedom of expression in this country.  It is a foundational principle of this nation.”

The First Amendment to the US Constitution guarantees both free speech and the free exercise of religion, reading in relevant part: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press…” The text of the amendment insures against the enactment of any laws that would impinge upon these freedoms, but stops short of obligating the legislature to enact laws that would seem to foster their exercise. In this context, the US government’s refusal to ban or prohibit “Innocence of Muslims” makes significantly more sense. It would be in clear violation of the Constitution to take a concrete action aimed at advancing one First Amendment freedom if doing so would be detrimental to another freedom of equal import.

While the US has made clear its refusal to follow Russia’s lead in taking legislative action to block the film, the US government has taken alternative measures in an effort to diffuse the film’s impact. In a special briefing delivered shortly after the Benghazi Consulate attack, a high-ranking official (whose name was withheld) confirmed that the Pentagon contacted the enormously controversial, albeit highly publicized American Pastor Terry Jones, who gained notoriety last year when he attempted to stage a national Koran-burning day on the 10th anniversary of 9/11. According to the official, “Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Martin Dempsey, spoke by phone this morning with Pastor Jones. This was a brief call in which General Dempsey expressed his concerns over the nature of the film, the tensions it could inflame, and the violence it could cause. And he asked Mr. Jones to consider withdrawing his support for the film.”

Free expression and secularism trump religious offenses in France

In response to the publication in a French magazine of offensive Mohamed caricatures Tuesday, Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault reiterated the fundamental role of freedom of expression in French society. In the same vein he reaffirmed the principle of secularism, as well as the values of tolerance and respect for religious convictions. He thus urged “everyone to demonstrate a spirit of responsibility” and expressed his personal disapproval of “any excesses” associated with the publication.