Free Speech in the Muslim World? Ask the Egyptian TV Station That First Aired the Anti-Islam Movie

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The story of Al Nas TV shows that there is room in Muslim societies for tolerating religiously offensive ideas.

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Egyptian TV host Khaled Abdallah discusses Innocence of Muslims on Al Nas. (YouTube)

For all the damage that mobs and armed groups have done in majority-Muslim nations in the past week, there is one target that they missed. The mobs in Cairo, one of many cities where protests followed the Innocence of Muslims video ridiculing the Prophet Muhammed, overlooked the Egyptian TV station that had actually broadcast it, Al Nas TV. Egyptian prosecutors have now issued arrest warrants for eight people in the United States with connections to the film -- but they, too, overlooked the TV station.

While the film's creators have received the attention they craved, it's more illuminating to focus on Al Nas TV, which made them famous. The station's story even suggests one possible answer to the problem of offensive speech in a number of volatile majority-Muslim societies.

The video, aired by Al Nas, was the latest slight to Islam that has prompted widespread violence. Now the new Arab democracies may be forced to consider how to balance speech rights with popular demands for blasphemy restrictions. Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood has repeated its call for an international convention against giving offense to religion. Tunisian leaders said the crisis underlined the need for a blasphemy law, of the sort that already exists in countries such as Pakistan. We're told of a cultural divide between the West, with its traditional freedoms, and majority-Muslim countries extraordinarily sensitive to insults to Islam.

A lesson of Al Nas TV is that maybe this divide is not so great after all. The Egyptian station was broadcasting in a manner that Westerners would recognize -- airing a controversy and discussing its implications -- and its staff has reason to hope for Western-style protection of speech.

Al Nas, the name of which translates as "the people," is financed by the Saudi government and associated with the conservative Salafist movement. Its Muslim employees broadcast the crude portrayal of the Prophet Mohammad to fellow Muslims, even though Muslims are forbidden from making images of the Prophet.

A reconstruction of events by the McClatchy news service indicates the TV station was more than a bystander. The offensive film clip was almost unknown -- an irrelevant piece of trash on the Internet -- until a film producer managed to place a tiny item in an Egyptian newspaper. But it wasn't until the TV broadcast that things really blew up.

The hosts played an extended clip of the video dubbed in Arabic, pondering what should be done. One, Khalid Abdullah (whose past enlightened statements include the analysis, "Iran is more dangerous to us than the Jews"), asked if anyone had apologized. His co-host Mohammed Hamdy declared, "An apology is not enough. I want them convicted."

Hamdy's anger is understandable. But if he wants someone convicted for offensive speech, shouldn't he start with himself?

After all, Hamdy is in Egypt, where the government need not follow America's Constitutional protection of free speech. If Egyptian prosecutors can accuse a filmmaker in the United States of "threatening national unity" or "assaulting Islam," crimes that carry the death penalty, surely they can actually arrest the men in Cairo who propagated the video.

Of course, I'm not suggesting that Egyptian authorities should arrest Hamdy; I hope that they don't. But there is a way he could defend his role in this incident: by invoking the principle of free speech.

This is essentially what the station has already done. In presenting the video, the broadcasters explained that they spread offensive speech because the public needed to be informed of in injustice. "No other TV channels would do this," Abdullah declared on the air. "Respectable media should bring this out. We have nothing more precious than the Prophet."

In other words, Al Nas was using the freedom of speech in the same way it is exercised in other countries, including those in the West. Exposing outrages is a central role of the free media, after all. Informing the public is a vital part of democracy, and will be essential in the Arab world as democracy spreads.

Now that even conservative Islamists have proven themselves reliant on free speech, it's hard to see how Egypt can go back. The next logical step would be for Egyptians of all beliefs to insist upon free speech. The best response to offensive speech is usually not to convict the speaker, ban their words, or storm some foreign embassy. It's far more effective to answer speech with speech, to engage with the offending idea openly and, hopefully, discredit it.

The public can even use free speech to question the media if it behaves irresponsibly. Some public questioning of Al Nas has begun, and the TV station is on the defensive. "We did not mean... to harm the national unity," insisted Essam Rady, the editor of the program, in an interview with NPR. He said the program merely "monitors what happens on the Egyptian street," and that if Al Nas really wanted to incite riots, the station would have played even more of the video than it did.

Rioters bear responsibility for rioting, not TV anchors. But Al Nas broadcasters must now ask, as Western journalists sometimes do, if they lunged at an incendiary story and ended up getting used. Film producers who were salivating to smear Muslims must have been thrilled when Al Nas became a distributor for their product. If they're going to have a democracy, Egyptians are stuck with free speech -- and also with the responsibility to use it better than Al Nas did this month.

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Steve Inskeep, the author of Instant City: Life and Death in Karachi, co-hosts Morning Edition on National Public Radio.

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