Tag Archives: Libya

“Innocence of Muslims” Filmmaker Released from Prison

How time flies. It hardly seems possible that almost a year has passed since last September’s controversy over an offensive You Tube video, “The Innocence of Muslims.” The video led to protests at American embassies in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East, drew the attention of the US President (“The future must not belong to those who slander the Prophet of Islam”), and had serious people questioning American free speech principles. Things have gotten much worse in the Middle East since then–in Egypt today, there are reports of massive violence in Cairo and the burning of churches across the country–for reasons that have nothing to do with a video that, one suspects, gets very few hits any longer. At one point, the US Government asserted that the video had led to the storming of the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, and the murder of four Americans there, including the US ambassador. But that explanation is no longer operative, and the media seems mostly uninterested in finding out what really happened. What difference at this point does it make?

One person for whom time has not flown, however, is the video’s American producer, Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, also known as Mark Basseley Youssef. He has spent the past year in federal prison. Nakoula has been in jail for violating parole on a prior fraud conviction, but there can be little doubt that as a practical matter authorities seized him because of the controversy over the video. Federal authorities have now moved him to a halfway house to serve the remaining weeks of his sentence. The location is undisclosed, presumably to protect Nakoula. In an interview this week with CNN, Nakoula says he was shocked at the allegation that his film caused the Benghazi attack. He also–much less convincingly–expresses surprise that people would think his video was anti-Islam. Nakoula will be on probation for a few more years and will also need to face civil suits by the film’s actors, who allege he misled them about the video’s content.

Libya Arrests Foreign Nationals on Proselytism Charge

Americans are often surprised to learn that many foreign countries have anti-proselytism laws. Often, these laws define proselytism as something beyond run-of-the-mill evangelizing. Proselytism typically connotes coercion and undue influence: the religious hard sell. Encouraging listeners to convert in exchange for food or money would qualify, for example; persuading listeners that your faith is the true one would not. On this view, proselytism is a sort of religious unfair trade practice, and anti-proselytism laws a consumer protection device.

I’m ambivalent about these laws in principle. History contains many examples of missionaries who exploited the poverty and ignorance of their listeners, and it seems to me societies could have a legitimate interest in discouraging that sort of thing. Not all countries have signed up for the American version of the religious free market, after all, nor does civilization require them to do so. 

But anti-proselytism laws have two major flaws. First, as a recent UN report argues, it is very difficult to draw a line between proselytism and protected religious expression. When does evangelism become coercive? When the missionaries establish a soup kitchen? Or a school? It’s very easy for religious competitors to fabricate evidence of missionaries’ bad faith. History contains many examples of that, too.

Second, and more important, anti-proselytism laws are often written and applied in transparently one-sided ways. Many Muslim-majority countries, for example, prohibit only proselytism directed at Muslims. Proselytism directed at non-Muslims is legal. And one doesn’t need to engage in coercion or bad faith to violate these laws. Straightforward evangelism will do.

Events in Libya this past weekend provide an illustration. Libya arrested four foreign nationals and charged them with proselytism–a crime that carries the death penalty. Apparently, the four were caught printing and distributing Bibles. A report in the Guardian reveals the locals’ shock that anyone would have the gall to do such a thing:

Benghazi lawyer and human rights activist Bilal Bettamer said Libya was a wholly Muslim country and Christians should not be trying to spread their faith. “It is disrespectful. If we had Christianity we could have dialogue, but you can’t just spread Christianity,” he said. “The maximum penalty is the death penalty. It’s a dangerous thing to do.”

And this guy is a human rights activist. Even Christians expressed dismay at what the foreigners were accused of doing, though perhaps Libyan Christians have no other choice. According to the local Anglican priest:

the five Christian churches in Tripoli have a tacit agreement with the authorities not to proselytize. “We don’t distribute literature, so we don’t have any problems,” he told the Guardian. “It is better not to indulge in these activities because we respect Libyans. We respect their religion.”

As of Monday, the foreigners have also been charged with espionage. The prisoners have been given access to their embassies, but one of the four, a Christian from Egypt, told reporters he had not requested assistance. He assumes the Egyptian government will do nothing to help him.