Many Americans would agree that a video portraying a religion's most revered prophet as a pedophile, sexual deviant, and ruthless criminal shocks the conscience. That it was created with the express intent to malign a faith followed by over a billion people worldwide only adds insult to injury.
Thus, the video created by Basseley Nakoula, an ex-felon convicted of fraud, and Steven Klein, founder of Courageous Christians United that promotes anti-Mormon, anti-Catholic and anti-Muslim literature, predictably triggered anti-American protests across the Middle East.
Media coverage of the protests shortsightedly focuses on formalistic arguments defending unpopular speech. Instead, Americans should do what the First Amendment intended -- offer a counter narrative in the market place of ideas that showcases America's tolerance, pluralism, and rich diversity.
Many Americans fail to appreciate that this inflammatory video is not viewed by Muslims abroad in a vacuum. Indeed, it follows on the heels of a Quran-burning by a radical Christian pastor in Florida, urination on Qurans by U.S. troops, opposition to mosque building across the United States, police surveillance of Muslim students and mosque-goers across the East Coast, and offensive campaign rhetoric accusing American Muslims en masse of disloyalty -- all of which contradict America's proclaimed values of religious freedom, equal protection, and respect for diversity.
Thus, Muslims abroad do not view the American-made hate film as merely an expressive act by a lone actor protected by the First Amendment. Rather it is part of a broader American assault on the Islamic faith wherein Muslims are expected to take it on the chin and smile.
Coupled with the dearth of videos, speeches, and public acts by average Americans proclaiming their respect for Islam and their acceptance of Muslims as equal compatriots, Muslims abroad are left questioning whether defense of free speech is pretext for condoning bigotry. For if all you hear and see from America is hateful speech, selective targeting and counterterrorism enforcement against Muslims, and shameless Muslim-bashing by politicians, then calls to protect freedom of speech unsurprisingly fall on deaf ears.
By harping on protecting unpopular speech as a constitutional right, we are missing an opportunity to show the world that despite our bigots and crazies, which exist in every nation and religion, America is in fact a tolerant, pluralistic society that celebrates its diversity. Indeed this is the very reason immigrants continue to flock to our shores.
While some Americans may take offense at having to prove they are not racists or bigots simply because a small number of Americans are, they do not hesitate to demand the same of Muslims every time a handful of Muslims commit a violent or offensive act. When a Muslim terrorist attempts to harm Americans or burns an American flag, should Muslims in America publicly condemn such acts or can they assume that the guilt of one will not be imputed onto the entire religion? If a few thousand Muslims, out of hundreds of millions, in Middle Eastern countries attack U.S. Embassies, must Muslims in America issue press releases condemning these acts of violence and proclaiming their commitment to American values? And if they don't, will their loyalty to the United States be questioned?
If the answer is yes, then it is incumbent upon all of us to question why we are willing to impose on Muslims the obligation to individually prove their innocence from bad acts of other Muslims, whether here or abroad, but yet refuse to impose the same obligation on ourselves when American hate groups and Christian extremists rhetorically and physically attack Muslims.
Most Americans do not support desecrating holy books, portraying others' prophets as pedophiles and sadists, and preaching hate. But unless Americans of diverse backgrounds speak up to accurately represent our country; Muslims abroad are exposed only to our vilest citizens.
We should not allow bigots like Nakoula and Klein to be America's spokespersons to the world. The best way to protect free speech is to proffer an accurate counter-narrative into the marketplace of ideas.
Otherwise our silence will be interpreted as condoning hate.
Sahar Aziz is an associate professor at Texas Wesleyan School of Law where she teaches national security and constitutional litigation. She is a fellow at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding. Her scholarship can be found at: http://ssrn.com/author=1459001 S