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

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."

Presented by

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

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