Singapore's banning of that anti-Islam video: why it was a mistake

Cherian George

The Singapore government’s order to block the anti-Islam video Innocence of Muslims here has been relatively uncontroversial. Singaporeans are comfortable with the idea that free speech should not be used to insult religions. Internationally, both the video and the mob response to it are so extreme that unusual measures are widely seen as warranted. For a change, Singaporean censorship has not been greeted by Western condescension or consternation – assuming it was even noticed.

Regardless of the level of support for it, however, the government’s move still needs to be judged in terms of its stated aims and its possible consequences. On that score, the government, to put it bluntly, has made a mistake. Even if inaction was not an option, regulators could have come out with a more calibrated response – one that has less chance of backfiring on Singapore and where precedents set can be defended as policy.

There are two related but separate reasons why restricting the circulation of a video like Innocence of Muslims might be justified. First, the fear that it would spark immediate violence; and, second, the need to protect a religious community from attack. In certain circumstances, either could be seen as legitimate grounds for restricting free speech – but on closer examination, neither is persuasive in this case.

Pre-empting violence?

The fear of violence was the government’s official justification for the move. “The continued circulation of this film is likely to cause disharmony or feelings of ill-will between different groups in Singapore,” the government said. It noted the eruption of riots elsewhere and adding that blocking online access to the film was necessary “to prevent similar violent incidents from taking place here”.

In my previous post, I argued that the way the move was defended sent the wrong signal to the world and to ourselves – that our public cannot be trusted to behave rationally in the face of religious provocation, and that the government lacks the capacity and moral authority to preserve order.

No doubt, the video producers had lit a match. But, was it enough to cause an explosion here? Only if you liken Singapore’s Muslim community to a powder keg that is incapable of reason.

When tackling extreme speech that represents a clear and present danger, timing is a critical factor. Sometimes, good speech may be slow to catch up with bad speech, and by then too much harm may have been done. Therefore, censorship may be warranted to buy the authorities time – time to win the war of ideas.

However, the timing of Singapore’s move was odd. Overseas, violence erupted on 11 September. Given the extreme uncertainty as to where things were heading, it might have been understandable if the government took pre-emptive measures at that point. Instead, more than a week passed before it stepped in. If the assessment was that the video had lit a slow-burning fuse under Singapore’s Muslim population, then it begs the question why government and community leaders could not use the time lag to ensure that Muslims’ entirely warranted outrage did not express itself in unlawful acts.

Even if it decided to just play safe – as the Singapore’s paternalistic government is wont to do – it would have been better policy to impose a moratorium rather than an open-ended ban. For example, it could have asked Google to take down the video for a week, or a month, or six. This would have signalled that Singapore does not live in permanent fear of unpleasant ideas – it just needed some time to let things calm down and let the rational voices in Singapore’s Muslim community come to the fore.

Protecting feelings?

Of course, many would ask why it is necessary to give such consideration to a video that amounts to a gratuitous attack on a world religion, and has no redeeming artistic merit. If it is simply obliterated, what is the loss?

This argument is related to the second main justification for censoring the video: to protect the feelings of a religious community in Singapore. This would be in accord with Singapore-style secularism, under which the government is protective of people’s religious identities (even as it disallows those collective identities from being expressed politically).

Protection of religious feelings is written into the Sedition Act and other laws. Under the Penal Code, any communication “with deliberate intention of wounding the religious or racial feelings of any person” is punishable with up to three years in jail.

Such laws appear to conform to most Singaporeans’ values. Unlike fiercely secular cultures that are suspicious of religious authority, Singaporeans tend to ring-fence religion from public debate. Whatever the merits of this instinct, though, one should not naively assume that what works for wholesome inter-personal relations should be translated directly into regulation. Civilised people agree that it’s wrong to insult another’s faith; but it does not necessarily follow that banning religious insult is good public policy.

If it’s intended to show Muslims that the government is sensitive to their feelings, its decision to ban the video can backfire badly. The problem is that religious insult (unlike hate speech that directly instigates others to persecute a religious group) is highly subjective.

That Innocence of Muslims is intentionally offensive is relatively clear. Things would get trickier if, say, Sunni Muslims claim to be outraged by Shia teachings; or Protestant Christians by Catholicism. (Let’s not forget that much – if not most – religious violence takes place between different denominations or branches within the same broad faith, rather than between entirely separate religions.) If that happens, the government would have little choice but to take the complainant’s word for it – it could not possibly claim authority to adjudicate theological debates.

Of course, in the current case, the government did not venture into subjective religious arguments. Its decision was based on the objective fact that the insult was great enough to provoke some of its targets to commit deadly violence.

But this seemingly rational decision makes for dangerously shortsighted policy. If regulators will only take your feelings seriously if you throw a violent tantrum, that’s tantamount to letting the least tolerant, most hardline leaders and followers within each religious community set the tone and the agenda for all. Those who try hard to live by their religions’ peaceloving principles will have every reason to feel cheated – their reward for remaining reasonable and law-abiding is to have their own values ignored.

In such an environment, we’d have to say goodbye to such precious Singaporean traditions as inter-faith dialogue and the Inter Religious Organisation (the world’s oldest such body) because these would be seen as an affront to those with more exclusive interpretations of what it means to be faithful. (This was the fate that befell inter-faith projects in Malaysia.)

All signs point to growing religiosity around the world, including the rise of groups within most religions whose answer to a crowded, culturally diverse planet is to retreat into identities that give them a sense of certainty while blaming their problems on those who are different. It is risky for a secular, progressive and multicultural society like Singapore to design media policies that play into the hands of such segments in a culture war that is not about to go away.

In the long run, there is little option but to shift towards a more liberal media policy, where the state does not set itself up as a protector of people’s religious feelings lest it find itself embroiled in no-win disputes between groups.

Creative responses

However, the state need not be totally hands-off either. If inaction is not an option – if for no other reason than that we need to show solidarity with our majority-Muslim neighbours – there may still be alternatives to banning. We should find ways to respond to the likes of Innocence of Muslims that respect freedom of speech while stating powerfully that some speech is better than others.

One example is the community response in the Netherlands and elsewhere to the similarly provocative video, Fitna. The far-right politician Geert Wilders’ crass attack on Muslims is well known, but what deserves equal attention is the mass campaign that emerged to neutralise it.

Once people heard about Wilders’ plan, they flooded the internet with their own versions of videos, also embedded with the “fitna” tag. Some were educational films about Islam, many were funny videos and others totally irrelevant to the topic. European Muslims and non-Muslims got into the act. The plan was to drown the Wilders video in alternative content. When his film came out, it was hard to find – and, more importantly, those who opposed it succeeded in making a powerful statement that pushed his hate-filled rhetoric to the margins.

Unfortunately, Singaporeans’ instinct for self-help is not as evolved as countries with an uninterrupted tradition of civil society mobilisation (PAP’s quashing of civic groups ensured that; but note that, even so, Muslims in Singapore have not been passive – see Mustafa Izzuddin's comment below). Grassroots, civic responses need to be encouraged.

In the meantime, the government could use its powers to tilt the playing field in favour of voices of reason. Instead of banning Innocence of Muslims, the authorities could have instead asked Google for the right of reply. The company could have been instructed to ensure that every time Innocence of Muslims appeared on YouTube in Singapore, it would be preceded by a counter-video of equal length, produced by Singaporeans.

Such a video could have featured local Muslim leaders such as the mufti, other religious leaders, and ordinary Singaporeans talking, singing and rapping in a celebration of everyday tolerance. Knowing the kind of creative talent we have in Singapore, I’ve no doubt that a small group of video students from one of our media schools, together with leading lights from the arts community, could have produced a world-class rejoinder to Innocence within 48 hours.

Would Google have agreed to such a “must-carry” order? No doubt, forced speech is also a form of restriction. But it is surely less extreme than a take-down order. I can’t see why Google would object. It would be in its interest to promote the idea that the solution to offensive speech is more speech, not less.

Such a creative response would have been noticed around the world – in a good way. We would have said, loudly and clearly, that Singapore will not take such provocations lying down. But instead of telling the world that we have an untrustworthy, combustible Muslim minority – thus confirming the stereotypes that its enemies are keen to perpetuate – we would be showing confidence in our ability to out-talk, out-reason and outlast the forces of intolerance.

SELECTED COMMENTS FROM FACEBOOK

"Cherian’s well-articulated piece could have been strengthened even further had it also looked at and assessed the different ways the Muslim community in Singapore has responded to the controversy. Some of these ways include the op-eds in the mainstream and online media; the sharing of images, articles, and videos made elsewhere; and various Facebook statuses updates and discussions including those which denounced violence. These responses have mostly been tactful, rational and responsible with the common theme being countering bigotry with knowledge, and creating awareness of the true nature of Islam, who the Prophet really was, and how the Prophet defines our identity as Muslims." – Mustafa Izzuddin

Comments are closed.