Party insiders and backroom deals: One author on why we need to bring back old-time politics.
Guest Host: Steve Roberts
Protests against an American-made online video mocking the Prophet Muhammad have sparked discussions about free speech. Guest host Steve Roberts and his guests discuss clashing cultural norms and efforts to define and regulate hate speech across the globe.
- Hisham Melhem Washington bureau chief for Al-Arabiya News Channel.
- Zeynep Tufekci assistant professor of the School of Information at the University of North Carolina and visiting scholar at Princeton University’s Center for Information Technology Policy at the Woodrow Wilson School.
- Rebecca MacKinnon senior fellow at New America Foundation. Her work focuses on the intersection of the Internet, human rights and foreign policy.
- Salman Rushdie Booker Prize-winning author of 11 novels, including "Midnight's Children" and "The Satanic Verses." His memoir is titled, "Joseph Anton: A Memoir by Salman Rushdie."
Audio Excerpt: “Joseph Anton” by Salman Rushdie
MR. STEVE ROBERTSThanks so much for joining us. I'm Steve Roberts, sitting in today for Diane Rehm. Protests against an American-made online video mocking the Prophet Muhammad has sparked discussions about free speech in the Arab world and here at home.
MR. STEVE ROBERTSJoining us in the studio to talk about clashing cultural norms and efforts to regulate hate speech across the globe: Zeynep Tufekci, she's a visiting scholar at Princeton University and assistant professor at North Carolina, Hisham Melhem, a frequent guest here and Washington bureau chief for Al-Arabiya News Channel, and Rebecca MacKinnon with the New America Foundation. Her new book is "Consent of the Networked."
MR. STEVE ROBERTSAnd joining us by phone from New York, author Salman Rushdie. His new book, "Joseph Anton," is a memoir of nine years under a fatwa, a death sentence imposed by Iranian clerics for his novel "The Satanic Verses." Welcome to you all. Nice to have you with us.
MR. HISHAM MELHEMThank you.
MS. REBECCA MACKINNONThanks very much.
MR. SALMAN RUSHDIEHello.
ROBERTSAnd, Hisham, quickly, give us a sense of the news overnight from the Middle East, more clashes, quieting down. What's the read?
MELHEMThe demonstrations have subsided in most of the Arab countries, with exception of Lebanon. Yesterday, we've seen a number of Lebanese at these demonstrations because the leader of Hezbollah, Sayyed Nasrallah, called for them. We've seen in the last few days many groups throughout the Arab and the Muslim world competing among each other and outbidding each other as to who is more virulently anti-U.S. or speaking out against this clip.
ROBERTSAnd, Salman Rushdie, you have a lot of very personal experience on this subject and would like your take on what you think is behind this violence that has swept the Middle East in the last couple of weeks.
RUSHDIEWell, I mean, clearly, the video of -- was initially the flashpoint. But, increasingly, as these protests have spread, multiplied in intensity, that seems to have been a pretext. And clearly, as your previous speaker was saying, there's kind of outbidding thing going on that sort of -- new manifestations of this outrage industry that seems to be the -- one of the plagues of our time.
RUSHDIEI mean, I feel that there's something similar as what happened 23 years ago with "The Satanic Verses" which, in many ways, I've come to think of as a sort of prologue or harbinger to these later events.
ROBERTSAnd you've also talked -- when you talk about the outrage industry, it's an evocative phrase. But why does it flourish? What are the conditions in the Muslim world that allow these folks, as Hisham said, were bidding out -- trying to outbid each other to stoke this outrage? Why is it finding a ready audience?
RUSHDIEWell, I mean, there is a kind of, you know, a large well of not very latent anti-Western feeling which is, in part, fueled by the various wars around the world. But it's also fueled by, like, one could say the responsibility of leaders. When you have Hezbollah leaders saying to their faithful that this whole business of the film and so on was a plot by U.S. intelligence, then it's easy to see how something like this pathetic little video could feed into a larger subject of anti-Americanism.
ROBERTSThat's Salman Rushdie. He's on the phone with us from New York. And you can join our conversation at 1-800-433-8850, our email address, email@example.com. There's some -- the line is open. Give us a call and join this conversation. I want to turn to Zeynep Tufekci from -- visiting scholar at Princeton, because I was reading all this reports, Zeynep, and -- from the Middle East and one expert said, you have to understand they're in the West, that our prophet is a million times -- was the phrase -- a million times more sacred than your Constitution.
ROBERTSAnd another said that, you have to understand that for Muslims, religion is their core identity. What is it that we in the West not understand about the mindset that has, at least in part, lead to these protests?
PROF. ZEYNEP TUFEKCIWell, I think the outrage industry was a good phrase because this was fueled not just with a YouTube video, but there was religious extremist television in Egypt that just plucked this video out of the obscurity and pumped it up and claimed that this was something that was done by the U.S. government, that this was being shown in U.S. -- American theaters, which was all false. And this was a lot of outrage.
PROF. ZEYNEP TUFEKCIBut what is important to understand, and I'm going to make two points here: One, the unique First Amendment and free speech culture in the United States is fairly alien not just to the, you know, Muslim world or Middle East or North America -- North Africa but also in Europe where we have laws that criminalize denying the Holocaust or trivializing, for example. Something like that would never path in the United States. That would...
ROBERTSAnd Britain has Official Secrets Act. It's much easier to libel someone in Britain.
ROBERTSI mean, it is very much a European issue, too.
TUFEKCISo when somebody goes on television, says that this is a U.S. government-sponsored video or U.S. government allowed, it's not as implausible as it seems to my, you know, Americanized ears. From that part of the world, sometimes it happens, that it may -- it seems plausible that something like this could happen. And these countries have been living a very controlled public sphere. I mean, let alone the free-willing Internet, they haven't had free television for maybe except a year.
TUFEKCISo, that's part of the context. But it's also important to understand that, by all accounts, the protesters, while causing a lot of damage, were a couple a thousand people. And they weren't, you know, great majorities in the streets like we saw in the Arab uprisings. There were millions of people in the streets demanding freedom during the uprisings. And the protests are estimated to be a few thousand in Libya, a few thousand in Egypt.
TUFEKCINow, a few thousand people can do great damage and -- as we've seen in the unfortunate case in Libya. But -- so it's not correct that there's this huge outrage sweeping the whole Muslim world.
TUFEKCIA lot of Muslims in the whole world, they're just as horrified at this kind of wreaking havoc as we are here.
ROBERTSHisham, you've been deeply involved in Middle Eastern media through your whole career. Pick up on Zeynep's point about just a different tradition, a different culture and a different mindset toward media that Americans should understand.
MELHEMWell, let me say first that this is not about religion. This is about power. This is about political influence. This video, like the previous incidents with Terry Jones, the bigoted pastor...
MELHEM...in Florida who wanted to burn copies of the Quran and before that the cartoons, the Muhammad cartoons and Danish cartoons in Europe. And, of course, we go back to Salman Rushdie's case, these incidents are used usually by a variety of political actors in the Arab and the Muslim world as a pretext in their own ongoing struggle for who is going to shape the future of these societies. This is exactly what happened in Egypt.
MELHEMIn this case, as Zeynep said, this clip or video was translated, or most of it was translated into Arabic, and then we've seen a religious extremist using it to incite hatred and violence, hatred against the Christian community in Egypt and violence against the United States, essentially. So what you have here is a cynical president, Mohamed Morsi, saying that the Salafis who are on his extreme right, the Salafis are atavistic reactionary. I call them primitive Islamists.
MELHEMThey have an incredibly primitive view of Islam because if you see them, the flowering of Islamic culture in medieval times, they will be shocked. And so Morsi is competing with them, and he was calling for demonstrations. So what you have here is irresponsible, reckless leadership, using these incidents to ferment anger and to direct the wrath, justified wrath of their own people not against the injustices of these societies and this leadership but against the American boogeyman.
ROBERTSNow, Rebecca MacKinnon, in addition to this, there is this culture clash of misunderstanding of the American approach to free speech. As Zeynep said, the First Amendment is rather unusual. Even in Europe, it is not all that prevalent in quite the same way. What is it that the Arab world doesn't understand about the American culture in terms of its attitude toward even hateful speech?
MACKINNONWell, I think we have to be careful not to overgeneralize about the Arab world...
ROBERTSYeah, sure. But...
MACKINNON...and what it understands as a monolith. And I just want to make a point in response to the very good points that Zeynep and Hisham just made that, you know, the response that's in the media primarily is the extreme response because that's what's on the streets, that's what's getting attention. But the -- if you go online, for instance if you go into YouTube and you type in "Innocence of Muslims," you will see a lot of...
ROBERTSWhich is the name of the film.
MACKINNON…-- which is the name of the offending film -- you will see a lot of response videos, some of them from very devout Muslims, saying that this doesn't deserve our response. This is garbage. A real Muslim who is genuinely following the teachings of Allah would never do this. This is against Muslim teachings to react in violence. And there's a lot of, actually, responses from what you might call the silent majority from the Muslim world that are reacting in horror and disgust to the way in which this video is being taken advantage of.
ROBERTSThat may well be true, but Salman Rushdie is a very example of the reality...
ROBERTS...in what he has gone through and just written his new book about. And, you know, you read comments from reputable scholars in the Middle East who say that you have to understand that to blaspheme against Muhammad, our prophet, is a capital crime in the Muslim world, where here, of course, there's a very different view of free speech.
MACKINNONSure. And YouTube, certainly, and the American media have more broadly come out of that tradition. And so it is difficult, I think, to understand, as Zeynep pointed out, if you've grown up in a culture where a film could not possibly have been produced without some government officials signing off on it to think that this could have gotten through.
RUSHDIEAnd YouTube itself, you know, it is benefiting not only from the First Amendment in order to become a platform for global expression, but it has actually worked to develop over the past several years a set of guidelines and practices that maximize the nature of this platform for free expression of all kinds.
MELHEMWe should note that in the past, when the Arabs and the Muslims were powerful, when they were producing knowledge, when they had tremendous civilizations, such as in medieval times, they allowed for a serious discussion of these issues, issues of faith and reason and philosophy and what not. They did not really care when the Europeans were writing nasty books about Muhammad and the religion of Islam because they were powerful, they had self-confidence, and they were secure. This is not the case of the powerless Muslim world and the Arab world.
ROBERTSThat's Hisham Melhem from Al-Arabiya. I'll be back with Salman Rushdie and the rest of our guests, talking about the culture clash between Western and Islamic views of free speech. Stay with us. We'll be right back.
ROBERTSWelcome back. I'm Steve Roberts, sitting in today for Diane. Our subject this hour: the cultural clash about free speech across the Arab world and demonstrations as a result of the video about the Prophet Muhammad. I want to thank Salman Rushdie, the author of the new book "Joseph Anton," for being with us this morning. And as well, here with me in the studio: Zeynep Tufekci, visiting scholar at Princeton, Hisham Melhem of Al-Arabiya News Channel and Rebecca MacKinnon of the New America Foundation. Her new book is "Consent of the Networked."
ROBERTSI want to pick up on something that Rebecca said about the role of these non-state actors. We talked about -- you mentioned, Zeynep, that there is this tradition in the Arab world of state-controlled media, which is part of the heritage. And here you have these international, almost sovereign states. One article referred to Google's foreign ministry as if they were probably rather accurately a world power.
ROBERTSAnd how does the introduction or the availability of this new form of communication introduced into a system and a state system that had largely been closed before, how does this contribute to the upheaval and the chaos we're seeing, Zeynep?
TUFEKCIWell, I want to say that it's an ecology of media. It's not just the Internet. And if you look at it -- Rebecca has this great new book, "Consent of the Networked," where she talks about them as these new sovereign powers where they are, in fact, the most important actors in deciding what goes and passes as free speech. In this particular case, Google decided to block this in Egypt and Libya without a court order and in India and Indonesia with a court order, which shows us that they're muddling through this.
TUFEKCIAnd their decisions now have these huge implications for what gets to be said where. And they might be doing the right thing in one case or not the other case. That's not really the issue. But what needs to be come under the spotlight is that you have these, as you say, non-state actors, as Rebecca writes in her book, these new sovereign powers deciding very important issues and have -- creating jurisprudence by a couple of people sitting in a room by themselves. It's quite unprecedented.
ROBERTSAnd, Rebecca, from one level, if you look at the world according to Google or YouTube, the world looks more homogenized. But it's the receiving countries that have a very different view as we've seen of what constitutes legitimate speech, what constitutes hate speech, what constitutes appropriate levels of free expression.
MACKINNONMm hmm, right. And, as Zeynep said, I call these companies the sovereigns of cyberspace. And while they can't put you in jail or tax you, they do have tremendous amount of power to shape, you know, your -- what you can say online, how you act online and how that interrelates to your offline life. And they do tend to have global norms that are set by the values of Silicon Valley in California and those cultures that these entrepreneurs grew up in and the laws that they came -- the legal environment they came from.
MACKINNONYet, you know, we've gone very quickly from an environment where media was really nation-state by nation-state pretty much to a situation where you have this global Internet that's run on platforms that are very liberal in their approach to free expression. Yet at the same time, these companies are actually running up against sovereignties and having to figure out how to deal with them. And they're getting...
ROBERTSAmong other things, their businesses that are doing business in these countries.
MACKINNONAbsolutely. Among other things, their businesses. They have offices in legal jurisdictions where employees can get arrested. And so they have to navigate how do they try and maximize free expression globally? I mean, Google in particular has really hitched its brand to this notion of free expression as part of its brand identity. Yet at the same time, if they are served with a court order in a company -- in a country where they have people on the ground, if they don't adhere to it, their own staff are in danger of arrest.
MACKINNONSo they've worked out a system in consultation, actually, with free expression advocates, including myself and others, partially through an organization called the Global Network Initiative, which is trying to help companies navigate these things, where they've committed to abide by principles on free expression and privacy and recognizing they have to -- when they get legally binding requests, they have to respond to them. But they're going to be open and transparent, and they're going to be minimal about the way in which they respond to these things.
ROBERTSHisham, I want you to talk about the impact on the Middle East of these new forces that Zeynep and Rebecca have been talking about 'cause, at one hand, during the Arab Spring, there was all these talk about how these new forms of communication fostered freedom and fostered dissent because people were free from the state control that Zeynep talked about. But we've also seen, as you pointed out, with the outrage industry, the very same systems, the very same platforms can also be used to foster violence and foster even terrorism.
MELHEMAbsolutely. Look, we have entered into what you might call a dark territory. There is new media landscape. It's not, you know, the major networks. Now, you have Google and other partial media. And then, in fact, in the world today, you have some international NGOs with budgets that exceed the budgets of a number of states. So the whole concept of sovereignty has been changing.
MELHEMI mean, legal scholars have been discussing this that the old, you know, Westphalia, European, old nation-state sovereignty is being challenged by a variety of things, you know, international crime, international terrorism, diseases and now, the new media, which has opened up new horizons. Now, in the Arab world, for instance, I could tell you that some Pan-Arab media outlets like mine, Al-Arabiya and Al Jazeera, are as powerful as governments. And they do influence public attitudes, sometimes positively and sometimes, unfortunately, in a negative way.
MELHEMIn Egypt, you've seen of plethora of new media, mostly television, owned by private groups, including religious groups, who have a message, "to disseminate." So this is the problem that we've seen now in Egypt. And that's why one of those stations played that clip and then used it to incite for violence and anti-Americanism. So this is going to challenge intellectuals, challenge the professional media who work in professional, you know, outlets who have editors to be answered to.
MELHEMAnd it's going to challenge the political establishment, the political class. And unfortunately, the political class and the Arab world is not ready for it. We have a tradition of autocracy, of patriarchy, of extreme, you know, religious conservatism that plays against these notions that are sacred maybe to us here in the West of the individual liberty of -- especially in the United States, of freedom.
MELHEMI can give you a quick example. As Zeynep said, in Europe, denying the Holocaust is a crime. In the United States, we can deny the Holocaust, and you can make a fool of yourself. That's fine. But, for instance -- I'll give you an example that was used by some of these leaders -- in the United States, President Bush in 2004 signed a law called Global Anti-Semitism law, which asks the State Department to monitor and combat anti-Semitism in the world.
MELHEMThis was seen by some of these people there -- and I would argue, you know, you can see why the argument resonates -- as, well, this is a preferential treatment of Jews. Now, if you have a preferential treatment of Jews, why can't you guys have a preferential treatment of Muslims where you will put restrictions on insulting the prophet and this and that? So these are things that we have to be cognizant of at this stage.
ROBERTSAnd, Zeynep, pick up on that and talk about the special place that Islam and the Prophet Muhammad plays in the cultural and religious life of this part of the world. And it seems to me that in reading about this that there still is a gap between understanding the emotions and the mindset in these countries and what we in the United States bring to it.
TUFEKCII would agree that there's a gap between, you know, Western countries and Muslim countries in terms of the sacredness of religious figures and whether or not you should be allowed to insult them in the public sphere. That's absolutely true. But even there, it's not monolithic.
TUFEKCIA lot of people in Muslim world, that's a billion people, would rather just ignore such things. It's true that there's a larger number of people, as we've seen in the protest, who are willing to go to the streets, who are willing to commit violence, who are outraged by this, than you probably would have if a similar offending video was made about, say, Jesus Christ or somebody. So that is true. But there's a lot free speech advocates, and there's a lot of people in the Muslim world who are just -- who are ignoring this.
TUFEKCIAnd I think the Internet is a great tool in that regard because when you have the outrage industry in both sides, try to play up certain stereotypes, you see the Internet coming back and knocking them down. And I went through this yesterday. I woke up to people showing me this Newsweek cover, which is this really a few people screaming, and it looks like the Muslim zombie apocalypse photo. It's just awful stereotype, and it's titled "Muslim Rage -- How Can We End the Story."
TUFEKCIAnd that's the kind of thing that totalizes a billion people into a caricature. It's the same thing that Al-Nas was doing and saying, this video represents Americans. This is Newsweek looking and saying, this is the picture of Muslims.
TUFEKCIAnd what happened then is thousands and thousands of people took to Twitter, took to Facebook to make fun of this and to come up with these examples of, you know, fake Muslim rage. And I think that really shows how varied the Muslim world is, and it can make fun of stuff and respond.
ROBERTSRebecca, I want to pick up on one other point that we touched on, which is in addition to being these non-state actors with the kinds of budgets that Hisham said and having their own foreign ministers, there are also businesses. And so you have the free speech principles you talked about. But we've seen in China, to take one very good example, where, in order to do business and establish a franchise, some of these companies have had to accept restrictions that they wouldn't restrict in other places. So there's also one -- there are commercial considerations as well as ideological one.
MACKINNONYeah, that's absolutely true, and some companies have made trade-off. Like, for instance, Google, which owns YouTube, has decided to keep YouTube out of China. And it's blocked, and they've decided they're just going to accept that trade-off and not do that business because they don't want to censor. So there are also...
ROBERTSBut other people have accepted the restrictions...
MACKINNONThere are other who have gone in. And so there's a discussion about, you know, how companies deal with the situation where pretty much everywhere in the world -- China is perhaps the most extreme. But there are very few places in the world where companies are not under pressure by the host government to do something that many people feel violates their rights in different ways. And so how companies navigate this in a responsible way is a really tough thing.
MACKINNONBut I want to pick up on one other point that I think is really important, which came out of this last exchange, which I -- is I think that, while the last few years and the Arab Spring have shown that the Internet is a tool for human rights advocacy, it's a tool for democratic discourse and that without free expression protections, without a free and open Internet, democracy and human rights are going to be much less possible, but that is not enough, that just having free expression, just having a robust and open Internet is not enough unless human beings make the effort to be civilized.
MACKINNONAnd so on top of this free expression architecture, we have to build civility. It takes human beings thinking about the consequences of their action. It takes editors like the editors of Newsweek thinking about what kind of world am I contributing to? You know, I'm not saying that government should censor this or that because it's going to, you know, incite this or that, but human beings acting responsibly. And I think we need to hold people to those standards.
ROBERTSWe're going to be right back with this and continue in this conversation with your phone calls and your emails. We're at 1-800-433-8850, firstname.lastname@example.org. Our subject this hour, the culture clash in the Arab world over the latest round of protest over the American-made video. I'm Steve Roberts, sitting in today for Diane. I'll be right back, so stay with us. This is Steve Roberts, sitting in for Diane, and we're going to be back with your phone call. So let's turn to our phones. And Nefis (sp?) in Washington, D.C., you're first.
NEFISThank you very much for taking my call. I just want to take issue with one thing. It is that in this conversation, what we may be missing is that this issue with the video was not in isolation. Had it been in isolation, then I think the reaction around the world would have been quite different.
NEFISThis is also somewhat sort of in reaction to what has happened in Abu Ghraib, in Iraq, in Guantanamo and the general feeling in the Middle East that the United States is against the interests of the Middle Eastern people and that, when necessary, they side with dictators and we side with sort of murderers, you know, like Muammar Qaddafi and others when it comes to our interests, and we turn against the Arab people when it's convenient for us. Thank you.
ROBERTSHisham, pick up on that, please.
MELHEMLook, there are legitimate reasons for being critical of the United States in the Arab and the Muslim world. And I think the number one, at least in the Arab world -- that's the world I know more than the rest of the Muslim world -- has been traditionally the American support for autocratic, repressive regimes during both Republican and Democratic administration. And this is a fact that George Bush, in his second inaugural speech, admitted to.
MELHEMAnd then he said, we are not going to accept this anymore, and we're going to pursue what he called, you know, essentially a freedom agenda. There are other reasons, you know, lack of progress on the Arab-Israeli conflict and a slew of other things, the way George Bush framed and executed the war on terrorism, and we can go on and on.
MELHEMAt the same time, I mean, historically, we've seen that the United States in the late 19th century and most of the 20th century, there was a great residue of -- or rather a reservoir of good will towards the United States because the United States was seen then as essentially the only Western major country that is not colonial or does not have a colonial legacy.
MELHEMThings have changed, and the roots of resentment against the United States are to be found in the political history and not in culture and not in religion per se. But I think there are professional anti-American intellectuals and political leaders in the Arab -- both the Arab and the Muslim world. The Arab world, as I said earlier, is a powerless world. Arabs resent the fact that they, at one time, they used to be a great culture, and now, you know, they -- like -- as if they are watching the modern world passing them by as a caravan, and they are being left behind.
MELHEMSo there is a sense of bereavement. There is a sense of being neglected or powerless or humiliated by a powerful West. And I think this has been used in this current transitional period that countries like Egypt and Libya and others are going through, and this is going to take a long time. At the same time, unfortunately, in the West, we have in this country now, at this stage, a great deal of Islamophobia that is being perpetrated by people in the Congress and in mainstream media and not on, you know, on YouTube and on the fringe right as we've seen.
MELHEMSo it is respectable now. In the -- during the Republican Convention, they have speakers who say, we cannot trust this American Muslim community. This is the United States in the second -- you know, in the 21st century. So we have to be cognizant of that. One final word about the cover of Newsweek, do you know who coined the phrase the clash of civilizations? It not -- it's not Samuel Huntington.
MELHEMIt was the historian Bernard Lewis, who wrote a cover essay in The Atlantic years ago. And you know what was the title? "The Roots of Muslim Rage." So we are going back and revisiting all of these issues, you know, (unintelligible).
ROBERTSHisham Melhem, he is the Washington bureau chief of Al Arabiya news channel. Also with me, Zeynep Tufekci, who is a visiting scholar at Princeton, professor at University of North Carolina, Rebecca MacKinnon of the New America Foundation. Her new book is "Consent of the Networked." We'll be right back with your -- more of your calls, more of your messages in just a moment. I'm Steve Roberts, sitting in today for Diane Rehm. Stay with us.
ROBERTSWelcome back. I'm Steve Roberts, sitting in today for Diane. Our subject this hour: the debate across the Muslim world and here in America about the new -- the video that caused such a reaction in Libya, the death of four American diplomats. With me to talk about this is Rebecca MacKinnon of New America Foundation, and Hisham Melhem is the Washington bureau chief of Al-Arabiya News Channel, and Zeynep Tufekci, who's a visiting scholar at Princeton University's Center for Information Technology Policy at the Woodrow Wilson School.
ROBERTSWe're going to go to our phones, and let's talk to Charlie in Ann Arbor, Mich. Welcome, you're on "The Diane Rehm Show." Charlie? You're on "The Diane Rehm Show." I guess not. Let's go to Jennifer in Shaker Heights, Ohio.
ROBERTSHi. Welcome, you're on "The Diane Rehm Show."
JENNIFERThank you. I just -- I want to say that I'm really fascinated and a little bit terrified by the whole phenomenon of being in completely different cultures and yet all of us together in the same sort of digital conference room and whether or not the one panelist, I mean, agrees that it's the Muslim world or just a handful of Muslims who are outraged.
JENNIFERThe fact is there's this fragility that is there, and I'm wondering what the panelists think for the immediate future, in the next 10 to 20 years, before we evolve to have this -- the civility we need to and manners that we need to, what do you see happening when things are such a powder keg?
ROBERTSThank you, Jennifer. Rebecca?
MACKINNONWell, I mean, it's difficult. I mean, one of the things that I've been doing with a number of friends and colleagues over the past several years is trying to curate a positive conversation on the Internet through an international citizen media network called Global Voices Online where we're really trying to bring out, you know, what are people talking about in different parts of the world in response to issues that you're not necessarily going to see in the mainstream media, translating things back and forth from different Internet spheres and trying to create a bridge for conversation and dialogue.
MACKINNONAnd, you know, it's one small effort. It's a little nonprofit, but we have managed to create some bridges and to get some stories and bring attention to some things to the mainstream media. And I think this is part of it. We need to all make efforts to not only learn about different perspectives but to engage in dialogue with people with different perspectives and not just cocoon ourselves with people who are very like ourselves culturally and so on.
ROBERTSBut there is a balance here, I mean, and this plays out domestically as well as internationally between freedom of expression and civility. And many news organizations, probably yours as well, Hisham, faces all the time. I mean, when you have comment boards, when you open it up to this wonderfully yeasty, vibrant conversation, at some point, are there bounds beyond which people should not be allowed to go...
ROBERTS...and this comes up every day?
MACKINNONOh, sure. Absolutely. I mean, on our site, we ban hate speech, and we moderate comments for that reason. So it's not to say that you want a state of nature free-for-all. You want civilization with protection of rights and...
MELHEMYou know, most responsible outlets and including our -- mine, we'll do that. I mean, when you get to see the comments after an article or a piece, some of them are somewhat hateful. The extreme ones we don't publish. But I think, you know, democracy is not only building institutions, it's building culture, and that takes time. These new societies now where they feel that they can express themselves and say outrageous things without any limits and we've seen that in Egypt now and that's why it's going to take some time.
MELHEMBut the problem is it's not the mob. Mobs are usually small, and it can be isolated. The problem is with the so-called mainstream leadership. The problem is with the so-called intellectuals who are either cowardly or complicit or -- and very few of them really stand up in these times. And I remember what happened to Salman Rushdie, you found very few, very few intellectuals in the Arab and the Muslim world standing up and defending his rights.
ROBERTSWe have an email from Keith, who writes, "As much as many Americans want to be open-minded and tolerant, watching people who think it's OK to kill others over a badly produced, ill-informed video could probably lead to a certain skepticism that Islam is, at its core, a peaceful religion." Zeynep.
TUFEKCIWell, again, it was a couple of thousand people, and the majority, vast, vast majority of the billion Muslims were just as horrified. In fact, Libyans took to the street protesting it. Every official in Libya went on the air and said this is awful. A lot of people did so in Yemen. The response in Egypt wasn't as strong, but that's being criticized too. Now, I want to say what everybody is saying about sane and civilized people stepping up, it's true for all the cultures.
TUFEKCILike the question of the Iraq War comes up every time I go to the region. Hundreds of thousands of people died in this action led by the U.S. government, and yet in the U.S., it's like it never happened. Nobody talks about it anymore. So if we are going to have these cultural conversations, people have to step up even if it's painful, even if it's not what you just want to talk about then since this has such a major impact. Again, hundreds of thousands of people died in a real war, we need to bring that back into the conversation.
ROBERTSLet me turn to Bill in Dallas, Texas. Welcome, you're on "The Diane Rehm Show," Bill.
BILLHello. Yes. Thank you for having me.
ROBERTSHappy to have you.
BILLYes. I've been looking at Al-Jazeera English online quite a bit the last few months. I've been very impressed with their reporting. And -- but since this violence in Libya, I've been unable to access it. Does anybody know if it's being censored or something, and, if so, then why such a reputable organization yet not some bozo on YouTube?
MACKINNONWhere are you located?
BILLI'm at Texas.
MACKINNONAnd have you tried accessing it from different places, different Internet connections?
BILLYes. Yes, and I can access every other website when I try to, but not Al-Jazeera. It, like, hangs up in a weird way that I've never seen before.
MACKINNONWell, here in Washington, D.C., it's accessible.
MACKINNONYou should contact the Electronic Frontier Foundation and have them run this check for you. But Al-Jazeera not being on cable television is another thing. That comes up a lot when I go to the Middle East. People ask me, if U.S. is such a bastion of free speech, why isn't there Al-Jazeera channel at least on, you know, cable? And this is clearly not just...
MELHEMYou can see it in some places, you know.
MACKINNONSome places but...
MACKINNON...very few. And obviously if U.S. can have a channel on the Gulf or ping pong or whatever -- and this is not a commercial decision because there's great demand for it. So you can see there are other ways in which speech in the United States is stifled. It's just not governed.
ROBERTSAbsolutely. But, Hisham, the introduction of Al-Jazeera English has been a very useful addition to the menu...
MELHEMI agree, I watch, too. Yeah.
ROBERTS...of Americans who can now access in English an Arab perspective that often was missing in American conversation.
MELHEMThat's very true, and that was needed, definitely. Can I say something quick about Islam?
MELHEMI mean, people talk Islam is a violent religion and all that. Look, you can isolate certain passages from the Quran just as you can isolate certain passages from the Old Testament, and then you can take them out of context, and they would look awful. The issue -- this is not a religious issue. And when you talk about a religious community, you talk about the lived religious community. You don't talk only about the religious text.
MELHEMThe religious text, whether it's the Old Testament, the New Testament or the Quran or whatever, is susceptible to different interpretations throughout the history of that religion. There was time when the Muslims of Europe in medieval times where more advanced and more tolerant and more open and produced great knowledge than the Christian Europeans. And yet the Muslims had the same book.
MELHEMIt is not the book. It is the economic, social, cultural environment in which a community finds itself. The Arabs had a great culture at that time. Today, they don't, and they are marginalized in a globalized world, and they feel that anger, and they feel that frustration. And they are being humiliated by their own leaders and by people outside who support these repressive leaders. And that, in part, explains the anger.
ROBERTSLet's turn to Aliyah. (sp?) If I have your name pronounced correctly, I hope?
ALIYAHYes, you do.
ROBERTSIn Oklahoma City. Welcome, you're on "The Diane Rehm Show."
ALIYAHGood morning and thank you for taking my call. I guess what I like to say before I go any further that I do not condone any of the reactions when it comes to violence or killing people or setting things on fire. But I am an American Muslim, and it does bother me that it seems like the feelings of the American Muslims are kind of dismissed in all of this because we were deeply hurt and disturbed by that video.
ALIYAHAnd there probably would have been, obviously, peaceful demonstrations here but most -- weren't probably not -- that's not going to happen here because we accept the fact that we live in a culture -- and I'm not trying to disrespectful, but we do live in a culture where anything goes. You can do whatever you want, you can say whatever you with some limits regardless of who it hurts or if it hurts society at large. And as for this not being a religious issue, it is to some of us. For many of us, it is a religious issue.
ALIYAHAnd so, like, that -- the arguments only focusing on the political aspects of it and the violent reaction and not focusing on the fact that this man who made this video, he knew what he was doing. It wasn't -- there was no -- it was cheap, low budget, and it appears that his only goal was to hurt people and provoke people and create chaos, and he did.
ROBERTSThank you very much for your call. Zeynep, the caller really reflects attention between a sense of religious outrage, an offense. And that tradition we've talked about, a free speech or even hateful speech, bigoted speech in the American tradition is permitted because once you introduce some notion of censorship or limits, it's a slippery slope.
TUFEKCII absolutely share her view that this is a cheap, offensive video. There's no question that this person meant to hurt and went out of their way to do so. And I would actually encourage her, if she wants to hold a protest about this, she should if she wants to talk to people. And it's true. Free speech sometimes and often does clash with very deeply held beliefs of other people, and that is just the reality of the world.
TUFEKCII mean, we should understand and sympathize with that hurt without necessarily advocating we shut it down. Because, as you point out, once you cross that line, we don't necessarily know where to step -- stop, although hate speech is and sometimes reasonably regulated.
ROBERTSWell, Rebecca -- and this is an issue that continues to plague American as well as other countries. I just want to pause and say, I'm Steve Roberts and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And pick up on this question of this tension that has come up several times in our conversation. And at what point is it in the American tradition to place any kind of limits, even given the deeply offended sensibilities our caller so eloquently expressed?
MACKINNONWell, I mean, we have very clear sort of constitutional and legal norms around that, you know, legally. YouTube actually does have community guidelines that go a bit further. And a lot of these Internet platforms do when it comes to obscenity and gratuitous violence and also hate speech. That they do remove things that are defined as hate speech in terms of one group of people calling on acts of violence toward another group of people or individuals.
MACKINNONBut part of the problem also with, you know, how -- to what extent do you place responsibility on what we call an intermediary, like YouTube, to determine what is acceptable and what is not?
MACKINNONIf you don't keep that very, very narrow, you go down a slippery slope very quickly. I mean a couple years before the Arab Spring happened, there was a very well-known incident where an Egyptian activist, who uploaded videos of police brutality onto YouTube, had those videos taken down because they were against community guidelines, because the administrators thought it was just gratuitous violence. They didn't understand what they were seeing.
MACKINNONAnd then there -- and then Google got accused of violating the free speech of activists who are trying to expose human rights abuses. So it's really hard for an employee of a company oftentimes to really make the right judgment call without then getting accused of violating speech.
MACKINNONSo platforms like YouTube have developed pretty strict and narrow ways of defining hate speech that are really actually, for the most part, in keeping with the international, you know, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and other U.N. documents that define hate speech very, very narrowly as incendiary. And this video had been up on YouTube...
MACKINNON...for quite some months, and nothing had happened. So that's one reason why they didn't define it in that way.
ROBERTSWell, we should make the point that even in the American tradition, there are limits. There have always been limits.
ROBERTSAnd generally, the line has been drawn at a point where you directly incite violence against someone. That's -- that tends to be the line. That is over a line. But that line is drawn very differently in many other countries as we said earlier. Let's -- time for one or two more callers, and I want to get to Donald in Kingman, Ind. Donald, welcome. You're on "The Diane Rehm Show."
DONALDWell, thanks for having me on. Do I give my question now?
DONALDOK. Associated Press article, it was in my papers Sunday, Sept. 16. It was about the detaining of this gentleman who made the movie. He was detained at the L.A. police station, according to the article, shortly after 12 a.m. Saturday. He was interviewed half hour by federal probation officers. He had been convicted of financial crimes prior, I guess, and he's on five-year probation. Well, after following that interview, it says the L.A. department deputies took this gentleman to an undisclosed location...
ROBERTSAll right. Donald, can I get the -- we don't have much time. Can I get your question, please?
DONALDYeah. Has anybody done any investigation into who this gentleman that made the film is running for? Or is he running for just himself and his own beliefs?
ROBERTSOK. Anybody have an answer to that?
MELHEMI think it was about -- he was questioned because of his -- the violation of his parole conditions. And we still don't know the full story in terms of motivation, what's the real identity of this man and all these few men who were behind this. But, look -- I mean, to go back to the earlier question and the tension that you raised, Steve. This tension is felt in every editorial meeting in every respectable newspaper or televisions, and we deal with this all the time.
MELHEMBut the issue -- the answer is not, as the caller said, may be implied restrictions. When people ask me why do I became an American citizen, I always say, it's because what I would call my secular bible, which is the Bill of Rights and the Constitution, Federalist Papers, all of these things, that what makes this country exception. It's not exceptional in terms of its military power. It's exceptional because of its -- of these rights and the greatest -- one of the greatest.
MELHEMI studied political theory and the American Constitution and all of these writings, you know, by the early founders that constitute a great deal. I mean, the best that was written in the West, particularly about political culture, and I think this is what makes this country great. People in the world, whether in Europe or in the Arab world, they should understand that the United States or the Americans are not going to change -- amend their Constitution just because people are offended.
MELHEMWe are in the business of offending people every day in this country. There is basically nothing that is sacred, and that's what may -- in many ways makes this country great. But these tensions are going to say with us forever.
ROBERTSThat's going to have to be the last word. Hisham Melhem, he's the Washington bureau chief of Al-Arabiya News Channel. Also with me this morning, Zeynep Tufekci, she's a visiting scholar at Princeton University, also an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina. Rebecca MacKinnon with the New American (sic) Foundation. Her new book is "Consent of the Governed." (sic)
ROBERTSAnd I want to thank Salman Rushdie, who's with us earlier, who's new memoir of his year's under a fatwa from the Iranian government is called "Joseph Anton." Thanks very much, Mr. Rushdie, as well. I'm Steve Roberts, sitting in today for Diane Rehm. And thanks so much for spending an hour of your morning with us.
ANNOUNCER"The Diane Rehm Show" is produced by Sandra Pinkard, Nancy Robertson, Denise Couture, Susan Nabors, Megan Merritt, Lisa Dunn and Rebecca Kaufman. The engineer is Tobey Schreiner. Natalie Yuravlivker answers the phones. Visit drshow.org for audio archives, transcripts, podcasts and CD sales. Call 202-885-1200 for more information.
Most Recent Shows
With a now-likely U.K. exit from the EU, America’s relationship with a key intelligence and global trade ally will change. Please join us to discuss what the British vote means for the U.S. economy, the 2016 presidential campaign and global security.
Analysis of the Supreme Court's last decisions of the term and the impact of a vacant seat on the bench.
The world reacts to Brexit: European Union leaders plan for Great Britain's departure and investors brace for more uncertainty, as the U.S. considers economic and strategic implications.