Videos and violence – Defending Islam and free speech

By Nigel Wilson

The online publication of the Innocence of Muslims video was the catalyst for violent and at times deadly protests in some countries. In the UK the series of events has pushed debates on freedom of expression and cultural sensitivity into the mainstream. For October’s First Wednesday an expert panel took to the Frontline Club stage to grapple with the big issues raised by the video and the violence.

Chaired by the delightfully dynamic Paddy O’Connell, the debate opened with each panelist outlining their stance. Whilst their views were varied, the speakers agreed that the British media had placed too great an emphasis on reporting extreme views rather than the reaction of moderates. The role of moderate thinkers and academics would come up later in the discussion.

In an examination of the root causes of the violent protests, long term American foreign policy was mooted as a cause by writer and academic Myriam Francois-Cerrah:

"It’s people in the third world who’ve been bombed, who’ve lived under dictatorships who for years have regarded the West and in particular the US as having played an important part in holding them down and they view the film…you’ve got to remember that for people in the Middle East it wasn’t clear that the American government had nothing to do with it. I know that’s absurd but preachers were coming in telling people that Hollywood had made this movie and that the government approved it."

This view was hotly contested by a number of the panel including The Times columnist David Aaronovitch:

"There is a perception that’s created by people who are on the right of political Islam which creates a sense of total victimhood and plays upon grievance at moments like this in order to get a reaction."

Maajid Nawaz who’s previously spent 13 years inside an Islamist organisation suggested that the causes lie somewhere between the two:

"We used to look at occurring geopolitical events and discuss how we could use those events to further our narrative that there’s a global war going on against Islam and Muslims… There’s a vested interest in two extremes. The anti-Islam extremists and Islamist extremists. Foreign policy is only half the truth."

Award winning author Tom Holland stressed the importance of belief that led to the protests:

"The reason we’ve had this response is that Mohammed is regarded by Muslims as the model of human behaviour. The ferocity of the response maybe reflects an over emphasis on certain elements in global Islam on the life of the Prophet and not on the divine."

The debate shifted to questions on censorship as a result of the deadly protests. Index on Censorship chief executive Kirsty Hughes expressed concern that self-censorship has already crept in when discussing religions like Islam:

"People in this country feel inhibited about whether they can analyse and challenge through our politics and our documentaries. Especially Islam. So there’s self-censorship going on."

Whilst the biggest cheer of the night was reserved for Aaronovitch‘s call for everyone to learn to get offended less readily, the panel agreed that in the globalised digital age these types of protests are likely to repeat.

Watch the event here: