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.
Two examples of this logic in action are the violent protests that followed the 2005 publication of the Mohammed cartoons and the 1988 publication of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses. In both instances, governments in many predominantly Muslim countries condemned the publications while excusing the rioters. Just today, France announced that it is closing 20 embassies out of fear that they may be attacked — over cartoons.
For years, the United States led the opposition to “defamation of religions” resolutions at the U.N. And we were winning: Support for the resolutions was eroding. But after winning a seat on the Human Rights Council, the Obama administration sought to make a splash. Following the president’s Cairo speech, our U.N. delegation in 2009 co-sponsored a resolution with Egypt on “freedom of opinion and expression.”
Although it contained some positive statements on freedom of expression, the 2009 resolution also affirmed many essential elements of the defamation-of-religions resolutions, albeit more circumspectly. The U.S. argued that the proposed resolution bolstered freedom of expression, but, in reality, it merely allowed each side to interpret “freedom” to fit its position. A clear, unambiguous defense of freedom of expression would have been far preferable. The Obama administration did not get it.
Nonetheless, the OIC and other supporters, seemingly resigned to the flagging support for defamation-of-religions resolutions, offered a less objectionable resolution in 2011 and have not pressed the “defamation” issue since. The administration has touted this as a significant achievement of its tenure on the council. That claim is questionable – support for “defamation of religions” had been declining even before Obama’s election — but the progress that had been made is now threatened.
Quite simply, the administration’s recent actions and weak defense of freedom of speech implicitly reinforce the principles underpinning defamation-of-religions proposals. Sensing an opportunity, opponents of free speech are already pouncing to secure restrictions on speech that “defames” religions.
• Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi reportedly “demanded that the U.S. administration take a firm position against the filmmakers, in accordance with international documents that criminalize acts that foment strife on the basis of race, color or religion.”
• Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono reportedly has urged the U.N. and the OIC to “issue regulations” against religious defamation.
• Iran announced it will demand that the OIC decide how to respond to the issue at its November meeting.
The Obama administration’s pusillanimous reaction to a YouTube trailer and violent assaults on U.S. embassies has clearly failed to assuage outrage among Muslim extremists. On the contrary, such appeasement will merely encourage similar violence in the future, along with convenient excuses of “incitement” to shift blame. The proper response is not to yield to intimidation and threats, but to resist them.
America’s image as the world’s foremost defender of free speech has suffered a serious blow; as a result, we should expect a revitalized effort to pass defamation-of-religions resolutions at the U.N. Will the Obama White House make a forceful stand in defense of the core American right of free expression? Signs are not promising.
— Brett D. Schaefer and Steven Groves are scholars at the Heritage Foundation. Schaefer is the Jay Kingham Fellow in International Regulatory Affairs, and Groves is the Bernard and Barbara Lomas Senior Research Fellow.