09/28/2012 11:06 am ET Updated Nov 28, 2012

Anti-Islamic, Yes, But It Is Also a Film

My good friend and colleague, Dr. Abbas Barzegar, offered his reflections on the current controversy prompted by the viral spread of the film, "Innocence of Muslims," and what appears to be an almost equally viral spread of violence directed against US embassies and other installations throughout the Middle East.

The film is exasperating for anyone interested in peaceful religious pluralism. And the extent of violent reaction prompted by this short film is exasperating for anyone committed to the principle of freedom of expression. Increasingly, there appear to be two exasperated camps here -- the secularists and the fundamentalists -- with few principles in common and very little left to talk about. A filmic assault results in physical assault which results in further violence designed to control street protests that have appeared at times close to the brink of the uncontrollable.

Barzegar entered the fray primarily in order to call a traditional western understanding of secularism into question. He suggested that in many ways this appears to be a clash between two religious visions rather than a clash between a religious (Muslim) and a secular (western, constitutional and democratic) world-view. The irony he wished to underline was the way in which the public expression of commitment to the rights of free expression can seem every bit as religious as the outraged sentiments of those who are now coming to the violent defense of their Prophet. Accusations of sacrilege are everywhere: sacrilege against the image of the Prophet; sacrilege against the sacred constitutional principles on which this country was founded. It is not a clash of civilizations, but it is very much a clash of religious worldviews. Secularism is a form of faith.

While it is important not to push the notion that secularism is a faith too far -- clearly it is a different kind of faith than the scriptural monotheisms currently of concern to us -- I would like to extend my friend's analogy here, by reminding my fellow citizens in the U.S. of the complicated history of film regulation in which this controversy should perhaps be understood.

Within a decade of the creation of a nationwide network of film theaters and film distribution centers, the U.S. Supreme Court expressed its view that this new industry needed to be very carefully regulated. In Mutual Film Corporation v. Industrial Commission of Ohio (1915), the Court decided unanimously that film was not a medium that warranted free speech protection.

The question was whether the new Ohio bureaucracy designed to regulate film content was an unconstitutional violation of the free speech of the filmmaker. Their reasons the Court concluded that it was not were interesting. There was something about this new technology -- photographic images in motion -- that was simply too powerful to be left unchecked and unregulated. The Supreme Court also worried that film was so easily accessed by young people that safeguards needed to be put in place to limit children's access to images they ought not see. This decision resulted eventually in the creation of the now-notorious Hays Office, which regulated all film content according to a very strict religious and sexual code for more than 20 years.

In 1952, in Joseph Burstyn Inc v. Wilson, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed itself, at least in part. At issue this time was a 1948 short film by Roberto Rossellini entitled "The Miracle." Several Catholic organizations in the U.S. protested that the film's content was blasphemous, and that it should be banned for this reason. The Court concluded that a secular government cannot be asked to weigh in on religious questions such as what constitutes blasphemy. In a religiously pluralistic environment, the Justices reasoned, one community's orthodoxy is another community's blasphemy. Protestants blaspheme Catholics, as a matter of principle and as a matter of course. Martin Luther referred to the Pope as Anti-Christ, and so on.

It is important to recall that the Supreme Court limited its reflections to the religious status of the term blasphemy. While film content cannot be regulated by the state for blasphemy, it most certainly can be regulated according to other standards. The right of freedom of expression is not, and has never been, an absolute right. You cannot cry "fire" in a crowded movie theater. You cannot incite physical violence. And so on.

These ideas lie at the very heart of our experiment in secular democracy, and I am in general committed to the general principles to which they point. For me the question is less whether secularism is a religious faith going by another name -- any political ideal is an expression of a kind of faith -- and more what kind of speech the film, "Innocence of Muslims," actually is.

In other words, is this short film comparable to "The Miracle," and thus entitled to all the normal protections, or is something else again? And is the YouTube phenomenon best seen simply as an extension of the film industry, or has the technology morphed into another kind of medium demanding another kind of regulatory regime?

This question, as opposed to questions about secular politics and the First Amendment, is something various peoples might be able to discuss more calmly together. This question hinges on whether "Innocence of Muslims" is a form of expression that incites physical violence. That, it seems to me, is were the real argument lies.

Defenders of freedom of expression insist that the film did not create violence, rather some Muslims with little sense of humor and even less patience with western stereotypes opted to become violent, all on their own. This is not a silly argument. There have been many similar films mocking other faith traditions that have not elicited this kind of response.

Yet fights and riots are always one part social theater. In the center of a downtown urban environment such as the one near to where my office is located, I have witnessed this reality many times. Two men argue; the war of words escalates. There is a tipping point, often marked by something that, if said, means that we are finished with words and are now turning to fists, or worse. It may be triggered by a sexual innuendo concerning someone's mother, or spouse. It may be triggered by a sexual or racial epithet. It is a kind of speaking that is intends to incite real violence. It is an announcement of the initiation of such violence.

These are "fighting words."

The question is whether we are now witnessing an international social theater in which the public mocking of the Prophet Muhammad, especially with regard to his sexual or moral identity, amounts to such a speech act. If so, then the film clearly was intended as an incitement to violence, and the committed secularist will have to re-examine the case.

This, I take it, was Dr. Barzegar's main point. A free speech fundamentalist is as impossible to talk to as a scriptural fundamentalist. And when words break down, violence almost inevitably is the result.