Blasphemy, Islam and Free Speech: A Twittersation

This afternoon, I had a very interesting conversation with Shabbir R Hassanally on Twitter about events of the last week in Libya and Egypt.

This raging mess in American relations with the Islamic nations, which has, as Michelle Obama might say, “revealed” more about both candidates’ character and abilities in foreign policy than either may have wished for, was alleged to have begun when a trailer for an intentionally inflammatory anti-Islamic film called “Innocence of the Muslims” made in California in July was translated into Arabic and posted on YoutTube. Thus, it became known to Egyptian Islamists who consequently rioted at the American embassy, starting a chain reaction of anti-American protests around the Middle East and beyond. According to the New York Times, the fatal attack on Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three others in Benghazi was the premeditated work of a Libyan paramilitary group with links to al-Qaeda that took advantage of the chaos over the riots against the film to execute a planned attack in retaliation for the drone-strike killing of a Libyan-born Qaeda official.

Huffington Post reports that the auteur behind the offensive film is one Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, a 55-year-old Egyptian-born Coptic Christian with a background that includes bank fraud and possibly meth manufacturing among  other enterprises. Though the story is weird and complicated, it seems Nakoula, in cahoots with a group of radical right-wing Christian Islamophobes, hired a bunch of actors to shoot a script they were told was about a fictional character. After the cheapie was shot, Nakoula dubbed in the offending dialogue denigrating Mohammed as a clueless sex maniac, pedophile and with various other Nakoula-like interests. When the story broke on the afternoon of September 11, Nakoula’s identity was not yet known. He was hiding behind the pseudonym “Sam Bacile” and claiming to be an Israeli-born American who was working with contributions from a hundred Israelis. In the Muslim world, word spread quickly that Israel and the US had colluded on the film, that it reflected not just the opinions of a nutty director but official US policy, as dictated to it by Zionist Israel. Why Nakoula tried to implicate Israel in his offense is not known (as far as I know). (Was he trying to give the Apocalypse a little boost? If so, maybe he succeeded better than he expected.)

At any rate, this afternoon, I saw this Tweet from Hassanally retweeted from one of the people I follow on Twitter:

‘Muslims prey to West freedom to insult’

The link takes you to an article at Iran’s English language news service

A prominent analyst says Western attempts to justify the production of a US-made anti-Islam movie by citing the much-propagated mantra of “freedom of speech” are deceptive.

“Western mainstream media try to deceive public opinion and interpret the making of the film in the light of freedom of speech. Hurting the sentiments of over one billion Muslims across the world does not fit in the definition of freedom of speech, author and Middle East expert Dr. Ismail Salami said in an article published on the Press TV website.

I saw this as an opportunity for cross-cultural dialogue. I was hoping to make the case that the protests against the film were misdirected, that if the protestors were angry at the film’s blasphemy, striking against the government that permitted the speech was missing the target completely. I was also hoping to get more of an insight into why the protestors were taking this tack. I don’t know if my worthy collaborator in this dialogue took my points to heart, but I think I did get the insight I was looking for.

In a series of tweets (which I will collate here in paragraph form for ease of reading), I made the following argument:

Freedom of speech is nearly sacred to secularists in the West. Some view misdirected Muslim anger as a kind of blasphemy. Not to defend the content of the offensive film, least of all the intent of the flimmakers. Even speech purists find them vile. But an attack on the “US” as proxy for the filmmakers is seen as a “blasphemy” against the principle of free speech. Not that US is blameless in foreign policy in the Middle East. But attacks on US for the filmmakers’ insult seem injust, unwise.

Hassanally replied (again, Tweets collated, orthography and grammar uncorrected):

i understand your sentiment, but the “US” is not the mass of American people – but the oligarchs and “leaders” who create the environment whence such a film/etc can be created and considered “eh freedom of speech” – question – if a film was … made that merely questioned the issue of the holocaust – you can be sure massive action would be taken – and indeed has … why the double standards? would the ‘US’ be fine with a film that suggests that the holocaust was a myth or something

My reply:

The US permits media on Holocaust denial. Speech is protected. Actions are another matter. But an attack on the “US” as proxy for the filmmakers is seen as a “blasphemy” against the principle of free speech.


i disagree respectfully – the ‘US’ is perfectly able to ostracise and outcast this zionist realtor sam bacile – but they .. have done pretty much nothing – same old sabre rattling, same drones, same old.. – 1 standard for US -another 4 all else

‘sides the attack is not on the ppl of the ‘US’ it is on the oligarchs that has subdued and oppressed the ‘US’ people .

Me again:

I have major problems with my govts foreign policy, not least of all the drones. But for me, the speech issue is separate. The US permits media on Holocaust denial. Speech is protected. Actions are another matter.


i disagree, i know of channels that have been taken offline -from american proxies (france, et al) – for showing dramas … that merely questioned some issues within talmudic judaism from their books – sahar tv, almanar tv – what happened to … freedom of speech then? like is say friend – one standard from the ‘US’ – one standard for the rest of the world – and frankly speaking the world is sick and tired of American admin’s hegemonic policies and oppressive tactics – to quote …


Also France has a lower standard for free speech. Even UK has a lower standard. In US it’s rooted in individual rights v. govt. In my limited understanding, the film was made by Egyptian Christian. He seems to have known he would inflame Cairo Muslims.


okay – but tell me – how much of this movie and the events of the few days – are they not based in US foreign policy? the film is a reason that galvanises and further gives credence to the argument that US admin is Islamophobic. if the US admin wants to not feel the heat – it should stop it’s blind support of Israel/Zionism and leave the mid-east…


US policy toward Islam is highly twisted, I’m sure you’ve noticed. ;-) Strongly influenced by Israel, no doubt. Partly because… … right-wing Christians in the US South have disproportionate power in the govt, dating back to slavery days. A complicated mess

As you know, right-wing Christians believe Jesus is returning to Israel. Our last president Bush apparently believed this as well Powerful elements in the US are indeed Islamophobic. It should not be this way, but it is. It’s a major problem. Alas… ..when Islamists kill our Ambassadors, it doesn’t help the problem. Catch-22!


look i hear what you’re saying and it’s sad that lives have been lost – but the blame is on Israel + Obama – peace friend:)

i understand that – and that’s what i’m trying to say friend – the problem is *not* with the ppl – it is the govt – also .. the US admins actions are hegemonic and always pro-Israel/pro-Zionism – this film is a result of the … pushing of the Islamophobic foreign policy that has been controlled by Zionists and neo-cons since before the 9/11 event :(


 More Americans than you know agree with you! Some are anti-Semites, but most simply find Israel’s power in our govt outrageous Again, it’s the secularists who support free speech who are most likely to agree that Israel’s power is way out of proportion.

Twitter works well for spontaneous “debates” between strangers across the globe like this one, but of course the 140 character limitation makes for some awkward language. I could have expressed myself more intelligently on Israel’s disproportionate influence on American foreign policy. But I tried to at least raise the Zionist Christian factor, which, I would bet, is easily missed by many Islamic observers in the Middle East, where Israeli Zionism tends to be blamed for everything. If Muslims abroad paid attention to the debates in this country over the absence of the words “God” and “Jerusalem” in the Democratic platform and over the “snub” the Obama administration allegedly delivered to Bibi Netanyahu, they might get a more nuanced picture of Israel’s actual influence on American discourse. It’s nowhere near as straightforward as it used to be. At least Hassanally knew enough about our internal politics to have heard of Ron Paul and the growing influence of the libertarian anti-war position, even on the right.

Incidentally, I have no idea where Mr. Hassanally is from, but rereading his tweets as I prepared this post made me realize how strongly he rejects the idea that a Coptic Christian with a criminal record is the driving force behind the film. He clearly buys the original rumors that sparked the riots, that the film was financed and made by Israelis in collusion with the US government with deliberate intent to insult Islam. He also showed minimal sympathy for First Amendment style free speech:

i appreciate the speech issue – but i oppose absolute freedom of speech – absolutism is extremism – and irresponsible. honestly speaking – freedom of speech has boundaries – absolute freedom == absolute anarchy == chaos – that is a fact :) my friend

Well, at least the Muslim Brotherhood seems to have some sympathy for the free speech dilemma:

In a letter published in The New York Times, Khairat el-Shater, the deputy president of the Muslim Brotherhood, said, “Despite our resentment of the continued appearance of productions like the anti-Muslim film that led to the current violence, we do not hold the American government or its citizens responsible for acts of the few that abuse the laws protecting freedom of expression.

“In a new democratic Egypt, Egyptians earned the right to voice their anger over such issues, and they expect their government to uphold and protect their right to do so. However, they should do so peacefully and within the bounds of the law.

“The breach of the United States Embassy premises by Egyptian protesters is illegal under international law. The failure of the protecting police force has to be investigated,” the letter said. It was displayed prominently on the English-language Web page of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

On a final ironic note, according to HuffPo, as a parolee for the bank fraud charges against him, Nakoula may not be protected by his First Amendment rights:

A spokeswoman for the U.S. Administrative Office of the Courts, which oversees federal probation offices, and a spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office in Los Angeles, which prosecuted Nakoula, declined to discuss his case Thursday. Under court rules, the government may ask a judge to send a convict back to prison if there is probable cause to show that probation conditions were violated.

A convict on probation doesn’t have the same rights to free speech or against unreasonable searches, said Jennifer Granick, a criminal defense lawyer who specializes in online crimes.

“Until you’re done with supervision, you don’t have full rights,” Granick said.

7 thoughts on “Blasphemy, Islam and Free Speech: A Twittersation

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  2. A comment from Anton S on this subject seems to have been posted in error on another article:

    Jesus said of people – “You will know them by their fruit” which I have always adhered to no matter how much advertising a person or group profess as to their Christianity. Christian fruit is righteousness, peace, joy amongst other virtues.

    So this Egytian Coptic “Christian” ‘s fruit is fraudulence, which idetifies him as belonging to another kingdom, opposing Christianity. So he is merely one of those Jesus says “masquerade as angels of light”.

    Christians do no believe Islam at all, except, possibly that some pseudo-Christian political church may have manufactured it, in order to gain political psuedo-authority in the Middle East.

    Nakoula seems to leave destruction in his wake and really be identified as an agent of darkness and wrong doing. His present legacy is self-evident and definitely not Christian.

    • You call me an asshole. I get offended and because i cannot do anything to you (you are in US and i am in India) i go out and kill the first whiteskins i find. Now, who is the real asshole ? The film maker made a film however shitty. Did he break any law ? did he kill any muslims ? These muslims have not only killes the ambassador and staff in libiya bu in pakistan the porkis have been burning up their own country and killing their fellow citizens.

      • Sreenivas,

        You had me all the way to threshold of the term “porkis.” But the rest of your point is well taken. The filmmaker seems to be more interested in shady business deals than geopolitics. But even if affecting the latter was his intention, the reactions his film provoked are not complimentary to the protestors, who, as you say, are destroying effigies of the source of their anger, which is the very definition of impotent rage. Or worse, misdirected and blind rage. They’ve let their alleged antagonizer win the upper hand. Congratulations to them for that.

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