Nakoula Basseley Nakoula or “Sam Bacile,” the man behind the blasphemous YouTube video that has set the Islamic world on fire, may be a twisted man but it is only naive to demand his arrest, and delusional to believe that it would be any sort of a fix to the real problem.
The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects free speech — inclusive of hate speech — therefore Nakoula cannot be arrested. That said, there are still people like Anthea Butler, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, who are lobbying for Nakoula’s arrest “because he deserves it.” By that argument, any person who offends another may be arrested. Where is the logic in that determination of who deserves punishment?
Yes, Innocence of Muslims is disrespectful to Islam; just about as disrespectful as The Last Temptation of Christ was to Christianity, or Pope Benedict’s recent comment against gay marriage was to the LBGT community. Yet we didn’t see mass violence over those and that underscores the existence of a deeper problem, one that we cannot make-believe one arrest will fix.
There are violent extremists in every ideological group — the Hindu Sri Ram Sene, the far-right Ku Klux Klan, the feminist Rote Zora are testimony to that. Thus Islam, as a belief system, is not to blame for the actions of those among its people who are misguided; its fundamental teachings and core values are not the cause for the hatred towards nonbelievers. And yet it is undeniable that in recent years Muslim extremism more than any other has been growing — in terms of number of extremists, frequency of activity and degree of extremism — and this raises the question of what then, if not belief system itself, is responsible?
I believe the answer is two-fold; first, the response of the moderate segment of the Muslim community to religious extremism is insufficient, and second, the response of non-Muslim Western communities is at times overkill.
The moderate Muslims: Arsalan Iftikhar, now a regular contributing writer for The Economist and Al-Jazeera among others, initially gained widespread attention for publicly condemning the 9/11 attacks as a Muslim. In 2008, he won the acclaimed Doha Debates with teammate Ed Husain, arguing for the motion “This House believes Muslims are failing to combat terrorism.” The crux of their argument was the selective moral outrage of the Muslim community; the fact that there are vocal protests and riots during the Danish Cartoon controversy but not against clerics who issue fatwas of suicide bombing and endorse the killing of innocent human beings.
A second factor is the continued prevalence of radical groups and literature that promotes the rhetoric of unfettered jihad and violence towards non-Muslims.
Extremism is less tolerated and more spoken out against in other groups; the public outcry in India following radical incidents by Hindu fundamentalist groups and the reduction of the KKK to a largely powerless organization are proof of this. Islamic extremists make up only a minority of Muslims and hence to dis-empower them, the remaining majority need only publicly and strongly oppose their doings.
The overreacting non-Muslims: In recent years Islamophobia has proliferated Western societies. In a poll conducted in 2010, 48 percent of Muslim Americans reported they had experienced religious discrimination compared to 18 percent of Protestants. The same poll found that at least one in five Americans believe that most Muslims around the world are not accepting of other religions and of people of different races other than their own; both statistics indicate an unfair generalization of the nature of Islam based on the actions of its minority.
The result of the West’s hyperbolic reaction to Islam is to widen the divide between Muslims and non-Muslims. For example, more than half of the Muslim societies sampled in the poll believe that Muslims in the West are not treated as equal citizens; a belief that would reinforce anti-Western sentiments that may exist in these societies. A key step towards breaking the positive feedback anti-Islam/anti-West loop is therefore for Western nations to overcome Islamophobia.
Innocence of Muslims is not the first, nor will it be the last, of excuses Islamic extremists use to practice the hatred they so desire; neither will it be the last instance of the resulting growing anti-Islam sentiment in the world. It is only a manifestation of a far larger and more serious underlying problem.