The first American jailed for blasphemy
Nakoula Basseley Nakoula deserves a place in American history. He is the first person in this country jailed for violating Islamic anti-blasphemy laws.
You won't find that anywhere in the charges against him, of course. As a practical matter, though, everyone knows that Nakoula wouldn't be in jail if he hadn't produced a video crudely lampooning the prophet Muhammad.
After the attack on U.S. facilities in Benghazi that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three others, the Obama administration claimed the terrorist assault had been the outgrowth of a demonstration against the video. In a speech at the United Nations, the president declared no doubt with Nakoula in mind "The future must not belong to those who slander the prophet of Islam."
After Benghazi, the administration was evidently filled with a fierce resolve to bring Nakoula to justice. Charles Woods, the father of a Navy SEAL killed in Benghazi, said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told him when his son's body returned to Andrews Air Force Base: "We will make sure that the person who made that film is arrested and prosecuted."
Lo and behold, Nakoula was brought in for questioning by five Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies at midnight, eventually arrested and held without bond, and finally thrown into jail for a year. He sits in La Tuna Federal Correctional Institution in Texas, even as the deceptive spin that blamed his video for the Benghazi attack looks more egregious by the day.
Two things must be said about Nakoula upfront. One is that his video can barely be called a video. The thing is lowdown, low-rent and should be offensive not just to Muslims, but to all people of good will.
The second is that he has a history of fraud. A few years ago, he was sentenced to nearly two years in jail on bank-fraud charges. Using a false name, Nakoula gulled actors into appearing in his video on the pretense that it was a desert epic. He is not going to win any good-citizenship awards, and he violated the terms of his probation by using an alias (something Nakoula admits).
A violation of probation, though, usually produces a court summons and doesn't typically lead to more jail time unless it involves an offense that would be worth prosecuting in its own right under federal standards. Not for Nakoula.
This wasn't a case of nailing Al Capone on tax evasion. As Nina Shea of the Hudson Institute points out, Al Capone's underlying offense was racketeering and gangland killings. Nakoula Basseley Nakoula's underlying offense wasn't an underlying offense. He exercised his First Amendment rights.
His case has symbolic significance in the battle over whether the Muslim world will embrace modernity or whether it will continue to slide backward by adopting blasphemy laws punishing expressions deemed offensive to Islam. Nakoula's jail time appears indistinguishable from what the 56-nation Organization of Islamic Cooperation, devoted to pushing blasphemy laws around the world, calls "deterrent punishment" for "Islamophobia."
His video, which did spark violent protests in the Muslim world by the kind of people always looking for an excuse to protest, should have been an object lesson in freedom. Obama should have explained that our culture is full of disreputable film directors and producers. Some of them are even honored by the Academy.
Instead, Nakoula ended up the patsy in a tawdry cover-up. The State Department Operations Center reported to Washington immediately that the Benghazi attack was an assault carried out by Islamic militants. The falsehoods about Benghazi weren't a product of the fog of war; they were the product of the fog of politics.
Very few people have been willing to stick up for Nakoula. His character is sketchy, and his work is execrable. Yet the First Amendment applies to him regardless, even if he might have reason to doubt it as he serves out a sentence that never would have come about if he hadn't offended the wrong people.