Saturday, September 15, 2012

Tenured professor calls for filmmaker to be jailed for his anti-Islamic film

Anthea Butler, who is an associate professor of religious studies at the University of Pennsylvania, tweeted on Wednesday the following question: "How soon is Sam Bacile going to be in jail folks?" (Bacile is the pseudonym of the man really behind the extremely bad anti-Muslim movie - Nakoula Basseley Nakoula - see Sarah Posner article about his real identity). This is a series of her tweets on the subject:
Her argument seems to be that since the people who murdered the American ambassador in Libya and three other American embassy personnel were supposedly provoked into committing murder by the film's insulting portrayal of Muhammad, therefore the filmmaker is responsible for those four people's deaths. It seems to me that the real ones responsible are her murderers. It's not as if this stupid movie is the only lousy anti-Islam movie on the internet - why would they suddenly be provoked to murder the ambassador on the anniversary of 9/11/01? It seems, in fact, that the attack on the consulate in Benghazi was planned beforehand and that the film only provided a useful excuse for the attack.

Butler continued her argument on USA Today:
My initial tweet about Bacile, the person said to be responsible for the film mocking the prophet Mohammed, was not because I am against the First Amendment. My tweets reflected my exasperation that as a religion professor, it is difficult to teach the facts when movies such as Bacile's Innocence of Muslims are taken as both truth and propaganda, and used against innocent Americans.
I'm also a religion professor, and I also get exasperated by people's stupid or even antisemitic ideas about Judaism. But that doesn't mean that movies or books or statements that are antisemitic don't have the protection of the First Amendment. It's my job as a professor to try to get students to look at evidence and to understand when a source of information is biased, partial, or even outright antisemitic (or bigoted against any particular religious group). I try to get them to engage in critical, informed thinking about the world around them - how can I really do that if I advocate limiting what information can reach them?
If there is anyone who values free speech, it is a tenured professor! 
So why did I tweet that Bacile should be in jail? The "free speech" in Bacile's film is not about expressing a personal opinion about Islam. It denigrates the religion by depicting the faith's founder in several ludicrous and historically inaccurate scenes to incite and inflame viewers. Even the film's actors say they were duped.
In what way is the film not expressing a personal opinion about Islam? It is in fact expressing a personal opinion (the filmmaker's) by presenting a historically inaccurate portrayal of Muhammad. It is certainly not the first movie to give a mistaken portrayal of a religious figure - The Ten Commandments by Cecile B. Demille is hardly a paragon of accurate biblical interpretation. Kingdom of Heaven, which is about the Crusades, and ends with the defeat of the Crusaders in 1187 to the forces of Salah al-Din, commits a number of historical howlers, including inventing several nonexistent love affairs. Movies are always making mistakes, deliberately or otherwise. Just because something is wrong or a lie is not a reason to ban it. It is not illegal to denigrate a particular religion or religion in general, in the United States. If the actors really think they were duped, perhaps they should sue the filmmaker for fraud.
Bacile's movie is not the first to denigrate a religious figure, nor will it be the last. The Last Temptation of Christ was protested vigorously. The difference is that Bacile indirectly and inadvertently inflamed people half a world away, resulting in the deaths of U.S. Embassy personnel.
Did the filmmaker intend to kill US Embassy personnel in Libya? Did the movie explicitly call for their deaths? If not, then there's no legal case against the filmmaker.
Bacile's movie does not excuse the rioting in Libya and Egypt, or the murder of Americans. That is deplorable. Unfortunately, people like Bacile and Terry Jones, the Florida pastor who provoked international controversy by burning copies of the Quran, have a tremendous impact on religious tolerance and U.S. foreign policy. 
That may be true, but should the US then abandon the First Amendment? The First Amendment prevents the Congress from "abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press." Perhaps people who feel motivated to burn buildings down or kill people when they hear things offensive to their religious beliefs need to learn that feeling insulted does not justify violence.
Case in point: Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called Jones on Wednesday to ask him to stop promoting Bacile's film. Clearly, the military considers the film a serious threat to national security. If the military takes it seriously, there should be consequences for putting American lives at risk. 
So is the US military now the ultimate arbiter of American rights inside the United States? In this country, the military is the servant of the civilian government, not the other way around. The military does not decide what rights we deserve to have - the Constitution is the source of our rights.
While the First Amendment right to free expression is important, it is also important to remember that other countries and cultures do not have to understand or respect our right. My condolences and prayers go out to the families of the U.S. Embassy employees killed in Libya.
The fact that other countries and cultures do not understand the right to free expression guaranteed in the US Constitution does not mean that they can dictate what rights are available to US citizens in the United States. When I visited Turkey, I was not particularly in favor of the laws that banned certain speech if it "denigrated Turkishness" or Kemal Ataturk, but I didn't loudly denounce Turkishness or Ataturk in the street because I didn't want to get arrested. When I returned to the US I felt free to say how stupid I thought these laws were. If some people in Turkey had heard what I had said, they might have been angry and even have wanted me to be arrested. Unfortunately for them, I made these remarks in the United States and thus their opinion had no force.

Anthea Butler says that she is not against the First Amendment, but the whole thrust of her argument is opposed to the idea that speech, even extremely distasteful speech, is protected by the Constitution, if it is offensive to people who sincerely hold religious beliefs. The First Amendment is not, however, a protection against become offended - if it were, obvious, vicious, antisemitic forgeries like the Protocols of the Elders of Zion would have long since been outlawed. In reality, you can easily download it from the internet for free.

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