Defending Islam and free speech

FSD’s Katie Engelhart sat in on this Frontline Club debate to discuss controversy surrounding the YouTube video Innocence of Muslims.

In July 2012 a cheaply produced 14-minute film denigrating Islam and Muslims was posted on YouTube. In the months that followed, that now-infamous video was linked to a wave of transnational protests that have, at last count, claimed almost 50 lives. On 3 October London’s Frontline Club brought together an expert panel chaired by BBC Radio 4’s Paddy O’Connell to work through what’s been happening. You can read more about the panelists and event here.

The guiding question addressed the film: “Freedom of expression or provocation?” Others followed: How provocative was it? What should response in “the West” be? To what extent can we chalk this latest violence up to Arab Spring growing pains?

The general consensus among the panelists was that the film was purposefully provocative and probably irresponsible (it was “crap,” in the words of Quilliam’s Maajid Nawaz). But how to respond?

Index on Censorship’s Kirsty Hughes was adamant that we should not respond to the protests with self-censorship. “[We] censor ourselves at our peril,” she warned. Others warned of an “internalisation of the fatwa” in response to notions of “creeping sharia”.

But others equivocated. Oxford University’s Myriam Francois-Cerrah made the case that violent protests are to be expected because Muslims have been geopolitically victimised for decades. But she was hesitant to endorse legislative changes of the kind that would make anti-Islamic films like this illegal.

Highlights of the night included a discussion on whether free speech can exist without separation of church and state and a debate about Twitter censorship in the UK.

Well worth watching.

This is one of several posts on Free Speech Debate about the Innocence of Muslims affair. Online editor Brian Pellot kicked off a debate in September on what role internet platforms like YouTube should play in setting free speech agendas around the world. Our director Timothy Garton Ash also highlighted a YouTube response to the video by British Muslim Syed Mahmood. Please share your thoughts about the controversy below.

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  1. The featured image for this blog post shows Indonesian Muslim protesters holding a “wanted” poster for Sam Bacile, Innocence of Muslims’ pseudonymous producer. The man on this photo is actually Theo Van Gogh, a Dutch filmmaker who was assassinated after producing a film critical of Islam (Photo by Reuters/Beawiharta).

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Free Speech Debate is a research project of the Dahrendorf Programme for the Study of Freedom at St Antony's College in the University of Oxford. www.freespeechdebate.ox.ac.uk

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