Calling himself Sam Bacile, a Coptic Christian living in Los Angeles named Nakoula Bassely Nakoula has made and distributed on You Tube a film called “The Innocence of Muslims,” full of attacks on Islam that include sexual innuendos about Muhammad. Not surprisingly, fundamentalist Muslim leaders have whipped up outrage, feigned or real, resulting in mob attacks on U.S. embassies in Egypt and elsewhere, and serving as the pretext for the planned ambush-murder of our Ambassador to Libya.
Egypt’s President Mursi, having seen where his people are going, has hastened to get out in front of them by calling on the Egyptian embassy in Washington to take “all legal measures” against those responsible for the film. The BBC reports that Egypt has indicted Nakoula, six other Egyptian Copts living in Los Angeles, and Christian fundamentalist pastor Terry Jones on charges of insulting the Islamic religion, insulting the Prophet and inciting sectarian strife, and has called on Interpol and American authorities for assistance.
We are still at the stage where Internet rumors are flying about Nakoula. He tried to pass himself off as an Israeli with Jewish financial backing. He turns out to be a small-time criminal, convicted of bank fraud and drug offenses, with no prior involvement with film. Whether he is working on his own or for someone intending to provoke an international crisis for political ends remains to be seen.
At some point the truth will emerge, but it doesn’t really matter. Whoever Bakoula and his backers are, our government has done its duty by making it clear that under our law the United States cannot prevent this kind of stupid and malicious provocation and is not responsible for anything, however vile, that private individuals choose to say about someone else’s religion. It is true that other free countries do these things differently. Based on the experience of fascism, many European countries prescribe racist or anti-religious speech. So do countries like India, which have a long history of intercommunal violence. Great offense has been given, and diplomacy requires the government to regret what Nakoula has said. But both candor to the world and our national values require us remind the world why it can freely be said here.
It is one of our proudest boasts that the law of the United States knows nothing of blasphemy. It leaves each of us free to practice any religion, or none. It leaves us all equally free to criticize any other religion in the strongest of terms, so long as we keep the peace, and it protects all who do so against violent retaliation. It trusts no government to determine what is true, or false, or offensive with respect to the divine. The drafters of our constitution were religious believers, but they were also men of the Enlightenment who recoiled from centuries of murderous persecution and religious war. By excluding religion from the sphere of government action, they prevented rival sects from contending for state patronage and endorsement, whether in the form of money, of dignity, or of silencing offenses against the supposed majesty of their god.
In this country we leave the Almighty alone to defend itself against disrespect, without human coercion. It is evidence of our maturity, of our self-confidence, and of our civilization to leave unmolested both the village atheist and the strident bigot.