By Bonny Ibhawoh,

Friends and followers of this blog have asked for my take on the controversial film about Prophet Mohammed (The Innocence of Muslims) and anger and violence that it has triggered throughout the Muslim world.

The topic reflects a classic tension in human rights and peace advocacy – the tension between free speech and hate speech. On one hand there is the question of freedom of speech which is a fundamental human rights that must be protected in all free societies. On the other hand, there is the question of whether a film produced with the express intent to demean and disparage members of a religious group rises to the level of hate speech.

But first, the basic premise: nothing justifies violence and killings of innocent people. There have, at the last count, been demonstrations against the film in 55 countries. Most have been peaceful. The violent outbursts and killings in Libya and Egypt stand as exceptions that should be denounced.

Secondly, freedom of speech should not be construed as a license to offend the sensibilities of others. Linked with the freedom of expression is the obligation of civic responsibility. Nowhere in the world is there absolute and unfettered free speech. Societies recognize that this could be a prescription for chaos and intolerance. Even in Western liberal democracies restrictions are imposed on hate speech and expression likely to disrupt public order — like falsely shouting “Fire” in a crowded theatre.

In many European countries including Austria, Germany, Hungary, and Romania, Holocaust denial is not considered free speech but a criminal offence, as it should be given the peculiar histories of these countries. In Germany, the Basic Law or Grundgesetz establishes only a qualified right to free expression. Victims of group defamation founded on historical injustice enjoy the protection of the Criminal Law. The Grundgesetz contains an “abuse of rights” clause under which those who seek to undermine the egalitarian values enshrined in the German constitution may forfeit their own rights.

Free speech divorced from historical and cultural contexts can create restrictions on the liberties and wellbeing of others. The question is: Does a “blasphemous” film rise to the level of hate speech? That, I think, is open to debate. For me, hate speech is any expression designed to make individuals or groups feel demeaned, despised, and rejected. A key criterion for hate speech is the infliction of harm or the intent to inflict harm.

The values of free expression serve society best when exercised with a sense of responsibility and consideration of how our free expressions affect others who do not share our values or world views. Such consideration does not, in my view, amount to capitulation or compromise with extremism; rather it is indispensable to building free and egalitarian civil societies where everyone can feel a sense of belonging.