The attacks on United States embassies in the Middle East raise questions about President Obama’s policy in the region. But the administration’s reaction to these events is troubling as well. Its strong condemnation of a video it claims incited the violence, its attempt to censor the video, and its weak defense of freedom of speech — all these actions damage America’s standing as a defender of free speech at home and abroad.
The administration insists that the murders in Libya and the protests at U.S. embassies in Afghanistan, Egypt, Indonesia, Lebanon, Pakistan, Sudan, Tunisia, and Yemen were not motivated by anti-Americanism or anger at the administration’s policies. Instead, the real cause of the violence was, in the words of United Nations ambassador Susan Rice, “a very hateful, very offensive” YouTube trailer for the amateurish anti-Muslim movie Innocence of Muslims. She did not explain why the protests erupted on 9/11, weeks after the trailer was posted.
Indeed, in a preemptive and misguided attempt at appeasement, the U.S. embassy in Egypt went so far as to condemn the trailer prior to the protest:
The Embassy of the United States in Cairo condemns the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims — as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions. . . . Respect for religious beliefs is a cornerstone of American democracy. We firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others.
The weak and apologetic tone sparked a huge political controversy. The Obama administration ultimately disavowed the embassy’s message, saying, “The statement by Embassy Cairo was not cleared by Washington and does not reflect the views of the United States government.”
Rather than forcefully defend freedom of speech regardless of its potential to offend, the Obama administration has employed intimidation and coercion in support of censorship. Shockingly, some journalists and academics — whose professions have historically strongly supported freedom of speech and the press — have voiced support for these efforts. This sends a shameful signal to the rest of the world. It implies that America’s dedication to freedom of speech and the Constitution is not resolute — worse, that our core free-speech doctrine is held so cheap that it can be trumped by allegations of “hurt religious feelings” from non-Americans who have repeatedly expressed hostility to our country and our values.
Unfortunately, this is not the first time other countries have challenged America’s commitment to freedom of expression. For more than a decade, countries hostile to free speech have sought to justify censorship through a ban on “defamation of religions.” According to the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) — the major proponent of such resolutions — any speech, book, film, or other form of expression that depicts Islam, Mohammed, or Muslims in an unflattering light constitutes “defamation” and should be criminalized. As such, criticism of Islam is, in itself, an incitement to violence and discrimination that must be banned as “Islamophobic.”
Defamation of religion is based on the “logic” that individuals “incited” by someone else’s speech cannot be held responsible for committing violent acts. The only way to prevent violence, therefore, is to restrict speech.