In Wake of anti-Muslim Video, U.S. Religious Leaders Condemn Violence, Affirm Free Speech

Interfaith religious figures in the United States navigated the free speech-blasphemy divide and spoke out against the anti-Muslim film that prompted violent attacks in Libya, Yemen, and Egypt this week.

BOSTON – As more details about the bizarre and provocative anti-Muslim video clip called “The Innocence of Muslims” emerged and its deadly consequences continued to play out in the Middle East, American Muslim, Jewish and Christian leaders navigated notions of blasphemy and free speech while coming together to condemn the violence.

“Our great country guarantees all of its citizens the right to freedom of speech, and unfortunately some use this simply to perpetrate bigotry and hatred,” said a statement from the Islamic Society of North America, the largest umbrella organization of Muslims in North America.  The statement read as something of a plea to co-religionists abroad. “The words of these individuals are intended only to create tension and to solicit violent reactions from Muslims and people of other faiths around the world. It is critical that no one aid them in this task.

“As American Muslims, we can state with confidence that these individuals hold views which remain on the fringes of our society,” the statement continued. “The vast majority of Americans and American news outlets completely disregard them, and we urge all people around the world to do the same.”

For Americans, free speech is venerated as a fundamental right. For some Muslims, negative depictions of their prophet Mohammed can be seen as an insult that needs to be answered.

Muslims often feel “an emotional attachment to the Prophet like he is a family member,” said Amir Hussain, a theology professor at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. “There is that same kind of (feeling) of protection of ‘This is someone in my family and how dare you?’”

In an Arab world largely unaccustomed to freedom of expression and a free press, a slight to Islam from an American source, even the most obscure, can be used to stir general anti-American sentiment, exacerbating an already significant culture clash.  

Although the events in Libya on Wednesday, when the U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens was killed along with three members of his staff at the consulate in Benghazi, appear to have been planned in advance, the video provided the necessary spark to launch the attack.  The video also served as the catalyst for demonstrations in Yemen on Thursday, where four protesters were killed by security forces, and in Egypt.

In response to the events, Caner K. Dagli, an Islamic studies professor at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts,, wrote on his blog Muslim Comment, “In this country freedom of expression is taken quite seriously, and Muslims here and around the world need to understand that the possibility of such hurtful garbage is part of a trade-off that works very well for observant Muslims in the United States. In the American context, one cannot disentangle one’s freedom to wear a turban, pray in a public park, and hand out free Qurans on campus from the freedom of a vulgar propagandist to shoot a film making fun of everything Muslims hold dear.”

The video’s deadly fallout has prompted fears in the United States that American Muslims will, in turn, feel a boomerang of Islamaphobia here. In recent years, prominent Muslim, Jewish and Christian leaders have increased efforts to combat anti-Muslim sentiment as part of the broader interfaith community.  

The determination to stand together in a show of unity was apparent Wednesday when Imam Mohamed Majid, ISNA’s president, held a press conference alongside rabbis and pastors and the Libyan Ambassador Ali Suleiman Aujali to condemn the attack in Libya earlier that day.

“Although we believe that this video is hateful and bigoted, this could never be an excuse to commit any acts of violence whatsoever,” said Magid. “No one should fall into the trap of those who wish to incite anger. The Prophet, peace be upon him, should be our example in everything we do, and even though he was attacked and insulted many times throughout his life, he always reacted with compassion and forgiveness, never with revenge or violence.”

Alongside him at the press conference was Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, who said, “While we defend the right to free speech, even repugnant speech, these kinds of messages on the Internet are so clearly crafted to provoke, to offend, to evoke outrage.  The denigration of religion, the mocking of religious leaders, the intentional framing of religious texts and tenets in this manner must be repudiated by all religious leaders.”

In an interview with Haaretz, he added, “Because we allow free speech does not mean we give approval to hate speech.

“We are standing together, diverse religious leaders, to both denounce violence in the name of religion and to denounce hate speech as embodied in this film,” he said. “And to help make clear to the world that the overwhelming number of Americans are appalled by the kind of anti-Muslim messages in this film.”

Rabbi Steve Wernick, CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, echoed those sentiments.

“We do believe in free speech and we don’t want to take away anyone’s right to speech. But free speech does not mean I have to buy it,” he said, referring to the video.

For Wernick the controversy reminds him, in part, of the Jewish anger over the 2004 Mel Gibson movie “The Passion of The Christ” which depicted the Jews as being responsible for the death of Jesus.

Despite initial reports that the video was the work of an “American-Israeli” director and Jewish funding, the man behind the film was found to be an Egyptian-born Coptic Christian living in Los Angeles with a criminal record named Nakoula Basseley Nakoula.

“I am embarrassed and ashamed that the Christian religion has been associated with an act as hateful as that of releasing a film intended to incite violence and even to cause the deaths of innocent people,” said Rev. Dr. Welton C. Gaddy of the Interfaith Alliance at the press conference on Wednesday. “It is a form of rhetorical hate crime.  It has no place in our democracy or in Christianity.”