Students respond to violence in Middle East

It has been two weeks since riots in Libya and Egypt sparked a series of anti-American demonstrations across the Islamic world. Four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, were killed in an attack on the US diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya on September 11, 2012.

The riots have since extended to more than two-dozen countries. In the last week, a group of demonstrators attacked the American Embassy in Tunisia, where two people died. There were violent protests in Khartoum, Sudan’s capital, and crowds agitated Pakistan’s largest cities, leaving 19 dead.

Initial reports indicated that the protests that lead to violence were a reaction to an American made film, “The Innocence of Muslims,” that mocks the Prophet Mohammad as a perverted murderer, though later intelligence suggests it may have resulted from a premeditated terrorist attack to mark the anniversary of 9/11.

Though Santa Monica College exists many worlds away from the Middle East, the impact and ramifications of the recent uprisings are influencing conversation close to home.

The Obama administration asked YouTube to review the 14 minute film trailer to see if it violated any of their website policies, particularly if it fits into the definition of a form of hate speech.

Many Muslims in the United States have been following the protests in the Middle East; both indignation over the film and concern over the protests it ignited are mixed in the opinions of the observers. The film seems to have initiated a debate over the free speech: Should the video be removed from the Internet given the violence it has allegedly created?

Santa Monica College Professor of Political Science, Diane Berman, refers to the First Amendment to answer this question. “As far as the United States is concerned, we have to uphold the law,” Berman said. “We might not like what is happening internationally, but we cannot censure the right of publication,” said Berman.

While many cite the First Amendment to defend the right of the filmmaker to create the movie, others like Muslim SMC student, Aziz Aljaber, believe that the film has caused enough violence to justify the removal of the video. “This movie provoked this violence; the Prophet is sacred to us and this video is a direct attack to our beliefs,” he said. “Imagine the reaction you would get if a person attacks Jesus this way,” Aljaber said.

Jewish SMC student Alan Soleyman doesn’t appreciate efforts to censor the video. “It’s his First Amendment right to say what he wants,” he said. “If it’s going to put us in danger, maybe there should be a consideration, but it’s un-American.” Soleyman added that Muslim sentiment for much of his generation is based on history rather than preconceived notions about a person’s background. “I don’t ever think bad about someone unless they’ve done something to me,” he said.

Student Laura Torres commented on the situation. “Technically they should not take it down,” she said. “But morally, it’s not appropriate.” Student Kevin Cacheco added that it should be taken down because it was tantamount to “yelling fire in a theater” and endangered others.  Both consider themselves non-religious.

Aziza King, president of the Muslim Student Association at SMC, considers that even though the video is offensive, legal actions should not be taken to remove It from the internet. “I guess he has the right to create this kind of video, even though it is hateful,” King said. “I believe we have freedom of speech as long as it does not impose on the rights of someone else.” King added that he does not agree with the violent protests in the Middle East but does understand the violent reaction. “I was angry after I saw it too; I had to stop a few times before I could watch it all because it was too offensive,” he said.

SMC international student Timur Celikel believes that the creators of the video have the right to express their opinion about Muslims, but with a caveat: “Although they are free to do this, and it is legal for them to treat religion as joke, they have to know that they will upset a great number of people. They are testing the limits to see how far they can go,” he said. Celikel, who is Muslim but does not consider himself religious, believes that this film is an offense to his origins. Julio Gomez, the vice-president of the Muslim Student Association, joined the group even though he is not a Muslim. “I was interested to start a club to confront the negative ideas associated with Muslims.” Gomez blamed media coverage of events like the recent protests and 9/11 for perpetuating a bad image of Muslims. ”I believe the media reinforces the idea of Muslims as a violent group because they focus on the negative. It is important to remember that there are people there who, even if they are angry about the video, do not embrace the violence,” said the vice-president.