In Asia, anger over ‘freedom of speech’ defense for anti-Muslim filmmaker

BANGKOK, Thailand — Gathered by the hundreds in a monsoon downpour, Muslims outside the US Embassy in Bangkok shouted down America and called for retribution against the makers of the low-budget, Prophet Mohammed-mocking video “Innocence of Muslims.”

Their chants were in line with those roaring across Arabic states in similar protests: “Down With America” interspersed with “Allah Akbar” (Allah is great) and signage depicting US politicians with vampire fangs and faces smeared in blood.

But in Thailand, and across Southeast Asia, Muslim anger over this film appears to register at a decidedly lower temperature in comparison to the outcry in the Middle East. In a region with minimal wrath towards the US, the backlash is largely focused on the American government’s refusal to punish the film’s director and thwart its spread.

Many seem genuinely disturbed that after so many protests — some ending in deaths, injuries and torched fast-food joints — US authorities are still unwilling to capture the troublemaking director, whose identity is still being confirmed.

“It portrays our prophet as a liar, a homosexual, a womanizer,” said Niyaz Khan, 33, a Thai citizen aligned with the International Al-Quds League of Thailand, an anti-Israeli group that organized the Tuesday protest.

“They call this freedom of speech. We disagree,” Khan told GlobalPost. “Freedom of speech should have some limits.”

More from GlobalPost: Rage Against America

Many of the region’s hardline Islamists and mainstream clerics alike are similarly fixated on America’s perceived tolerance of the film. An official White House response calling the film “reprehensible and disgusting” is considered, by protesters, to be a meek and unsatisfactory response.

Southeast Asia’s most unruly response to the film has erupted in Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation. Riot police and protesters hurled stones and tear-gas grenades this week near the US Embassy in Jakarta. The Indonesian vigilante group Islamic Defenders Front, one the rally’s chief organizers, has vowed to repeat these raucous rallies in coming days.

“I hope it becomes an important lesson, for all Western countries, to no longer allow insulting the Prophet Mohammed and Islam in any form,” said Habib Rizieq, the group’s leader, in a statement posted online. “Allah Akbar!”

Recent anti-“Innocence of Muslims” rallies in the Philippines, Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia mark the Southeast Asian debut of a phenomenon that has swept the world from England to Africa to the Middle East and beyond.

Southeast Asian Muslims’ anger over the America’s perceived tolerance of the film is perhaps owed to their own government’s tight controls on expression that is liable to start riots. When most of the region’s own governments prove reasonably adept at censoring far less incendiary videos, there is a sense that America should at least attempt to thwart the film’s spread and lock up its director.

Even in Singapore, a tiny state with a 15 percent Muslim minority, Home Affairs Minister Teo Chee Hean denounced the film by proclaiming that “freedom of expression does not mean that one has unfettered rights to insult and denigrate another’s religion or race.” 

More from GlobalPost: Muslims clash with police in Europe as governments mull limits of free speech

In Jakarta, signage wielded by Muslim protesters was designed to match the film’s obscenity with equally punishing insults. One display depicted US President Barack Obama, beaten and bloody, with the tagline “You Lost the War.” Another displayed a photo of US troops brazenly flashing weapons in a desert followed by an image of US flag-draped coffins. 

Most rallies are organized by small, politically charged factions who look toward the Arab world for guidance, such as the Indonesian chapter of Hizbut ut-Tahrir, which hopes to coalesce all Muslim countries into a unified state. Indonesian cleric Siad Aqil Siradj, leader of the mainstream Muslim group Nahdlatul Ulama, stated publicly that while he may deplore those who insult the Prophet, “there is no need to take to the street and burn anything. Do not create chaos.”

In Thailand, home to an overwhelming Buddhist majority, Muslim protesters made pains to indicate they were rallying to protect all religions, not just Islam. “We’ve come out to show that you cannot trample any religion,” said Sured Ahmad, a Thai Muslim. “We are not blaming all Americans. This is the wrongdoing of people who hate Muslims.”

But while denigrating religious figures was deemed off limits, national symbols were not. 

Under pelting rains, men standing before the US Embassy in Bangkok doused an American flag in lighter fluid and managed to briefly set it alight. The crowd cheered in approval.

Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Danny Vinchenzo on 09/19/2012 - 03:55 pm.

    I was just at the Bangkok Embassy…

    I actually had to cross check your story on other news sites, because I was just at the US Embassy to get a letter notarized yesterday (wed) and it was a perfectly peaceful scene. It does seem from other reports with pictures and dates provided that protesters gathered the day before (tues), but I don’t think there is much to make of it. The Thai government pre-empted the march/demonstration and the Embassy closed early.

    I guess in the growing overall story of protesting Muslims upset over their religion being offended that it’s true to label it an odd and growing concern with some regions at risk of violence. But apparently whatever brief protest their was in Bangkok, it went on peacefully and passed.

    You would think that worldwide worshipers of any gods would let their gods do their own defending and shaping of the world to work out for the best, leaving the worshipers to spend their time helping one another and building peace around them instead of defending their gods from insults which I doubt would affect them or their many powers of god-ness, but I’m sure there’s some odd back-story as to why that isn’t the case.

    Overall, since I’m here and have a front row seat, I would say things seem quite calm and peaceful. I think the honest reason for that, is most people here have better things to do or more important concerns at hand. For the five months and many countries I’ve been to as I’ve traveled South East Asia, I can honestly say I have felt safer here than any of the 30 years I spent growing up in the US. I’ve driven across the US twice, lived there most all my life and I’ve lived in LA, NYC and the suburbs of Long Island and New Jersey. I feel safer in SE Asia than in the suburbs of the US, no joke. Anyways, good story, didn’t even know this happened till I read your article.

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