A stupid, offensive, poorly produced 14-minute film clip about the Prophet Muhammad has enraged the people of an entire region. It is still unclear but entirely possible that the sole purpose of producing and distributing Sam Bacile's “Innocence of Muslims” was to enrage Muslim communities — a means to an ugly end. I will not defend the clip; it should not exist, and certainly should not have the 14 million YouTube views that it does. The violent reaction in the Middle East highlights an interesting tension between the free speech we Americans so readily enjoy and being responsible global citizens.
It is important that bullying from abroad does not force policies and mindsets that infringe on local rights or norms, but at the same time there is an obligation for those that create art and media to be mindful of the worldwide community.
Princeton students, whose voices are being heard now and whose voices will continue to matter upon exiting FitzRandolph Gate, need to be mindful of the far-reaching implications of their creative and academic output. A University that is made up of 12 percent international students and has a school dedicated to international relations certainly has to produce a student body that is aware of differing global cultures.
In the speech given by former ambassador and Wilson School professor Daniel Kurtzer last week, he underscored the notion that media in the Middle East and the West has very different implications. When a film is produced and distributed in Libya it is most likely created by, and is certainly sanctioned by, the Libyan government. Anyone in the United States, even the most underprivileged, unthinking and misinformed person, can take a video camera or smartphone and make an Internet video — even an Internet sensation. The perception of how important a film clip is varies between regions. Americans are therefore not as likely to take the musings of an anonymous Internet idiot as seriously. In the Middle East, many states still exercise extensive power and authority over their media.
In the United States a film can come from the actions of one; this is less true in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia’s influence permeates in the Arab television world; Munhwa Broadcasting Corporation, Rotana channels and Arab Radio and TV are all Saudi-owned and linked to the royal family. When something is broadcasted, it has been approved, in some indirect way, by a Muslim authority. In America, before the violent civil unrest abroad, Sam Bacile's film was hardly discussed and certainly would have been discarded into mental garbage cans with so many other stupid movies before it. By contrast, in the Middle East, the film caused, or stood in as an excuse for, violent riots and the rape and murder of American diplomats.
In the case of making a video about a sensitive subject that is so dear to the people of the Middle East, part of being culturally aware is understanding the way the film might be received at home will be very different than how it will be received abroad. In the case of “Innocence of Muslims” these considerations were likely taken into account and expressly abused for a desired effect. In general, however, it is crucial to recognize the tightrope that must be walked between being free in our creative processes and knowing the implications our work might have. I believe the aggressive protestors in the Middle East ought to have an open forum to discuss things that offend them, but it is important for people to keep in mind that they don't.
As global citizens who are producing work that is and will continue to be put out into the world of letters and arts, we have a responsibility to keep this lesson in mind. Our publications and general creative projects could have real impacts. Most Princeton students are not likely to try and incite global violence though offensive work, but there are implications and ramifications in everything we do. I stand by everyone’s right to create things that will not be popular, or that might even be offensive, but it is important for us to be cognizant of what could arise from our actions. It is simultaneously important to keep in mind that when we let the actions of others dictate what we do, it can set a bad precedent — it is bad to give in to thugs. In vain, Obama’s administration paid $70,000 to air a commercial on seven different networks in Pakistan apologetically denouncing the video — the same week thousands of Pakistanis attacked an American diplomatic outpost. Showing weakness abroad is also not necessarily an appropriate maneuver.
Original URL: http://www.dailyprincetonian.com/2012/09/26/31264/