Anti-Islam Video: Crossing the line from moral culpability to legal accountability?

I’m sure you’ve heard of the burgeoning global protests against the anti-Islam video “Innocence of Muslims”. While most can agree that the video is indeed denigrating and disrespectful, what is debatable is whether such acts (and judging from the violent responses it has generated) warrant criminal investigation and legal action? Do we take them to task in order to quell somewhat the violent reactions, or simply choose to wave it off while extolling the freedom of speech and shaking our heads at the violent protests?

Professor of Religious Studies Anthea Butler argues that yes, the masterminds behind the video deserve to be arrested given the dishonest nature of its production and the global repercussions it has costs for both western and middle-eastern worlds alike:

So why did I tweet that Bacile should be in jail? The “free speech” in Bacile’s film is not about expressing a personal opinion about Islam. It denigrates the religion by depicting the faith’s founder in several ludicrous and historically inaccurate scenes to incite and inflame viewers. Even the film’s actors say they were duped […] Bacile indirectly and inadvertently inflamed people half a world away, resulting in the deaths of U.S. Embassy personnel.

Adam Lee, a Big Think and Daylight Atheism blogger, argues how calls to arrest the film producers are ludicrous and symbolically bows down to the demands of the protesters:

With all that said, however, I have to admit that there’s no moral equivalence to be drawn here. The free expression of opinions, however reprehensible those opinions are, isn’t a crime against human rights. Violence is. The producers of the film (who are apparently trying to stay in the shadows) may well hold false or bigoted opinions about Islam. But if their intent was to enrage Muslims and provoke them into violence against innocent people, thereby demonstrating that Islam is a backward and violent religion… well, they’ve made their point.

What is your opinion on the matter? Do you agree more with Butler in that the negative impacts of such actions justify due punishment? Or with Lee in that while we denounce such videos, arresting the film-makers would be a compromise of ‘western’ values of freedom of expression and speech? 

OR, are both writers missing the point here? Was this video merely a trigger that blew wide open larger anxieties and tensions between the two ‘civilizations’ (ala Samuel Huntington)? 


Adjustment Bureau and Free Will

If you’ve watched the movie ‘The Adjustment Bureau’, I’m sure you’ll recall a scene where Thompson lectures protagonist David Norris on his naive belief in free will of humans.

The quote from Thompson is reproduced below, with added Wikipedia links.

We actually tried Free Will before. After taking you from hunting and gathering to the height of the Roman Empire we stepped back to see how you’d do on your own. You gave us the Dark Ages for five centuries… until finally we decided we should come back in. The Chairman thought maybe we just needed to do a better job of teaching you how to ride a bike before taking the training wheels off again. So we gave you the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Scientific Revolution. For six hundred years we taught you to control your impulses with reason, then in 1910 we stepped back. Within fifty years, you’d brought us World War I, the Depression, Fascism, the Holocaust and capped it off by bringing the entire planet to the brink of destruction in the Cuban Missile Crisis. At that point a decision was taken to step back in again before you did something that even we couldn’t fix. You don’t have free will, David. You have the appearance of free will. 

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AWARE Saga: Some Lessons

Mentions of the AWARE saga (April to May 2009) have been met with blank stares with class. Apparently, most of you are not so aware of what was arguably the single most notable event of civil society uprising in Singapore in recent years before GE2011.

Here’s a short summary of the event from the Economist. It involved a tussle between the largely conservative christian ‘new guard’ and the liberal secular ‘old guard’ over the leadership of the women’s rights group, culminating in an impassioned Executive GM where a majority of the  three thousand attendees voted against the ‘new guard”s takeover.

So what happened and what can we learn from it? You can check out socio-political blogger Alex Au’s review of the recently published  The AWARE Saga: Civil Society & Public Morality In Singapore (ed. Terence Chong, NUS Press, Singapore). Au stresses in particular the aim of the book in getting readers to see the issue beyond a simplistic conservative-liberal dichotomy.

Yet, to read the event as merely a conflict between one religion and homosexuality would be to miss much of the significance of it. As the contributors to The Aware Saga – Civil society and public morality in Singapore (ed. Terence Chong, NUS Press, Singapore) take pains to explain, the fight has both deep roots and wider ramifications. It also breaks open many questions – about the influence of the US and global Christian Right on religious thinking here, about the muscle power of hierarchical organisations versus that of flatter, more open structures – that need attention if one is to comprehend the more complex and variegated society that Singapore is becoming.

Another local political commentator, Catherine Lim, also remarked–in one of her numerous letters on the subject–about how

…it is exactly this diversity and expressiveness that marks an active, alert and robust citizenry that Singapore has often been accused of lacking. I expect that never again will Singaporeans be described as apathetic (Dare I hope, as a long-time political commentator, that the same critical voices will also be heard in the other, even more controversial arena of political issues, so that at long last, we will truly have matured as a society?)

Finally, I want to draw your attention to writer Cherian George’s essay on the subject. In summary, he outlines three key lesson to be learnt from the matter: the brand of secularism that works for Singapore; the type of representation that civil society organisations should offer; and the level of transparency and accountability that the public deserve from such groups. Here are some key excerpts:

On secularism:

When intolerant – and considerably more violent – voices have surfaced in other religious communities, the moderate mainstream had to rise up to reclaim the microphone, to assure themselves and their fellow citizens that their faith was entirely compatible with peaceful co-existence in a multicultural and democratic society. Similarly, one of the most positive outcomes of the Aware saga is the strong assertion by Singaporeans of faith and their religious leaders: we are here, our faith makes us and our society stronger, but we will not impose our values on others.

On representation and civil society organizations (CSOs):

First, while the expectation that a civil society organisation (CSO) should represent the majority view is superficially seductive, it is in fact fundamentally flawed. CSOs are not political parties, which must appeal to the majority to win elections. One of the chief values of CSOs is precisely that they fill the gaps left by political parties (and by the private sector), by serving causes that the majority may not embrace […]

While it may be unfair and unrealistic to expect each CSO to reflect all colours of the rainbow, a CSO that aims to have national impact should certainly be outward-looking. An internally homogeneous community-based CSO is not a problem in itself; it should be judged by the friends it has. It deserves to be viewed with skepticism if it is unable to work with groups representing other communities. Fortunately, several faith-based and ethnic-based groups in Singapore have excellent records of working side by side with other groups, regardless of race, language or religion.

On transparency and to some degree, government reaction:

Civil society groups that want influence and respect should be transparent in their dealings and be ready to account for themselves. It would be an understatement to say that the insurgents were unprepared for the intense public scrutiny they attracted […]

The Government is not known to be sympathetic to the progressive agenda of Aware’s liberals. Perhaps the insurgents had hoped that dragging the school sexuality programme into the debate would prod the Government to take its side. If so, they miscalculated. If there is one thing that is stronger than its antipathy towards liberal values, it is the Government’s resistance to letting its power and prestige become tools in the hands of any lobby group, whatever its ideological complexion.

Women. Wheels. Willpower.

Image from American Bedu

Road Warriors

by Aryn Baker/Riyadh (original article here)

When Maha al-Qatani settles into the driver’s seat of her family’s baby blue humvee these days, she goes through a familiar routine: a glance in the rearview mirror to ensure that her headscarf and face veil are on right; a whispered prayer; and a reassuring pat of her Coach handbag, stuffed with all the essentials for a possible prison stay — toothbrush, deodorant, comfortable clothes and prayer rug.

She may need them. On June 17, al-Qatani made history by becoming the first woman in Saudi Arabia to receive a traffic ticket. She sees it as a badge of honor, proving that she defied a prohibition on women driving in the kingdom and, she hopes, paving the way for more women to do the same. Still, the possibility of prison remains. “If no one sacrifices, no one will get their rights,” al-Qatani said on the day of her maiden drive in Saudi Arabia.

In one of the most peculiar revolts to have been inspired by the Arab uprisings, al-Qatani and dozens of other women have taken to the streets — not on foot but behind the wheel. They are leaving their drivers at home and heading out on their own to the grocery store or to the doctor or to pick up their kids from school. Those thankless errands may plague women around the world, but for some in Saudi Arabia they are a long-dreamed-of freedom. “What these women are doing is brave, and what they are seeking is right,” said U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton of the protests.

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‘News’ the Secular Religion?

The human mind’s ability to reflect is an astounding one. The web itself has ironically no lack of articles and essays that speak out against our dependence on its overflow of information. Here’s another essay from the BBC lamenting how our exposure to voluminous information and unquenchable thirst to keep updated with current affairs is actually resulting in us ‘knowing less’, in

… (losing) our capacity to fix our minds steadily on anything. To sit still and think without succumbing to an anxious reach for a machine has become almost impossible.

The author claims that this phenomena is akin to how

The news occupies in the secular sphere much the same position of authority that the liturgical calendar has in the religious one. Its main dispatches track the canonical hours with uncanny precision. Matins have here been transubstantiated into the breakfast bulletin and Vespers into the evening report.

In other words, keeping updated has become something of a secular religious rite itself. The key difference is that while religious texts often call upon us to go back and reflect on them, the news just keeps feeding us. What is needed then, according to the author, is that we ‘fast’ from this incessant swallowing of information and actually go back to medita…I mean enjoy, some of our old favorites (secular or religious).

If we lament our book-swamped age, it is because we sense that it is not by reading more, but by deepening and refreshing our understanding of a few volumes that we best develop our intelligence and our sensitivity.

Do you agree with his assessment that keeping updated or ‘connected’ to information flow is a modern religion? Why?

Do you share his lament that we do not take time to ponder over what we have read these days?

Are people in Singapore or your society facing a similar issue?


The ‘interview’ in the video speaks for itself.

While it is appalling to find the land of the free practicing such extreme intolerance, we cannot simply write this off as Americans being inherently prejudiced as well. It is clear the Quran burning episode above is merely a symptom and not a root cause. Is this due to September 11? Is it due to increasing Muslim presence in Western countries? Is it simply the difference in culture and belief?

What do you think are some of the causes that have led to the rising Islamophobia in the US?
Are there any similar ‘phobias’ you can think of in Singapore?
Are we all just ‘racist’ who are in hiding, ready to surface when a tension point erupts?

Hard-pressed for Harmony

A recent ISD investigation into comments from a local pastor (report here) might be seen as yet another “I told you so” episode to remind us of the importance of religious and racial harmony in Singapore.

“The media is a powerful tool used for various reasons (e.g. propaganda) that cannot be underestimated easily. Utilization and accessibility are almost effortless. This is incident serves as a prevalent reminder for us not to be impulsive or hasty, and to consider the repercussion of one’s actions…” (Comments from Daphne, 1T08 2010)

However, what is more interesting to consider is whether this controversy might have arisen if his sermon was not posted online.

Sometimes what you say might not be as nearly as important as where you say it.

What do you think? If someone taped all your comments on school and posted them on some forum, what might the repercussions or implications be?