We believe in free speech. We believe this even when a video as offensive as it was poorly done causes riots throughout the world. It is important that we remember that.
However, it is also important that we remember the purpose of free speech. Free speech exists to defend a minority position. It does not exist to discriminate arbitrarily against a group.
As the riots in the Middle East reached their peak last week, the French magazine Charlie Hebdo published lewd depictions of the prophet Mohammed despite numerous objections. The editors defended their decision in the name of free speech. They called it a satire of the film and the news dominating our headlines of the demonstrations and violence that it has triggered. Stephane Charbonnier, the director of the magazine, stated explicitly that this “grotesque film,” not the prophet Mohammed, was the target of the cartoons.
Why then do the cartoons depict Mohammed naked and performing sexual acts? What is the point of these cartoons in the wake of violence and death?
Clearly, they can exist only to insult and inflame religious tensions. In the context of the past week, these cartoons are no longer idiotic and petty caricatures but threats to the safety of many in the region. Multiple French consulates and embassies have closed in anticipation of potential repercussions.
Yesterday, Nicholas D. Kristof ’82 wrote in The New York Times about the relationship between violence and insults to Islam. It is true that other religions do not react violently to religious insults. And it is also true that many Muslims counter-protested and apologized for the recent protests.
But it is true as well that religion may be a means as well as a motive. Within the region, religious identity is the ideal means of political exploitation, easier than ethnic identity and more effective than national identity. By manipulating religion, an extremist group transforms a cheap and amateur video into a call to arms against the West’s hatred of Islam and its way of life.
Last Friday, the Obama administration defined the attacks on the United States consulate in Benghazi as intentional acts of terrorism. There is strong evidence that the groups behind these attacks initiated the protests and even more evidence that they have exacerbated the conflict in pursuit of their own ends.
We can only understand the danger of the French cartoons within this context. Any exploitable content is ideological ammunition. The right catalyst could ignite the region and mobilize an extremist group from the periphery to the center of power.
The purpose of free speech does not just depend on its initial context. It also depends on the use of that speech in the public sphere where any group may manipulate its use.
The Middle East remains suspended on the edge of instability and any event may tilt the balance. “A revolution isn’t an event, but a process,” Kristof writes. And he is right, but certain events may accelerate the process and cause it to ignite.
Raul Quintana ’14, a Crimson editorial writer, is a social studies concentrator in Leverett House.