Over the last week, the world has seen film criticism turned into violent protest. The movie in question, The Innocence of Muslims, portrays the prophet Muhammed as a child-molesting, adultering, homosexual thug. In doing so, it has offended many, some of whom attacked U.S. embassies in North Africa. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three members of his staff in Libya were killed in one of those incidents.
I didn’t want to watch the film, but for the purpose of writing this article, I saw it on YouTube. It’s some thirteen minutes of inept acting, bad dialogue, pathetic effects, and an absence of character development or a coherent plot.
But the protests aren’t over the fact that it’s a lousy movie. The problem that some see in it is that it depicts Muhammed as a bad person. It calls into question the origins of the Islamic religion. Is it offensive? Certainly. Is violence an acceptable response? Certainly not.
The implication of the protests is that the religion in question is too weak to survive criticism or insult. Ideas cannot be defended by violence. Those who accept ideas do have the right to defend themselves against physical harm, but offense doesn’t qualify. People have the right to live and to believe, but ideas do not.
Understand the point that I’m making there. A person has the right to be a Muslim or not, but the religion itself has no right to special protection. Ideas have to stand or fall on their own strengths and flaws. As we’ve seen time and again, nonsense gets the protection of swords and shields, but that doesn’t make it true. Good ideas are often suppressed, but that doesn’t make them false.
So what makes a religion true or false? It’s not scientific evidence or historical events, no matter what some believers may say. Religion isn’t subject to those considerations. What makes the difference is the narrative power of the religion and the meaning that it gives the lives of its participants. In terms of social utility, we can consider whether the religion makes a person better, but that goes beyond the validity of the religion itself.
I’ve seen questions asked about how a film like this could have been allowed. This comes mostly from countries that don’t respect freedom of expression. Those countries also don’t typically respect freedom of religion, either. America has extraordinary religious freedom and no official religion and a high rate of participation in religion. Those two facts are connected.
With that in mind, the right response to an offensive movie is to speak out, to make a new film, to preach, and to argue. If the religion in question has good ideas, it will survive. If not, it’s not worth fighting for in the first place.