The Corner

U.S. Embassy Favors Religious Feelings over Free Speech, Attacked Anyway

The U.S. Embassy in Cairo has posted on its homepage a special message for 9/11 today. Its only purpose is to condemn what they call “religious incitement.” While calling for religious harmony is understandable and welcome, this short statement goes much further: It essentially upholds the Muslim anti-blasphemy standard that the Egyptian government applies in its ban on “insult to heavenly religions,” and that has long been championed by the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in U.N. resolutions calling for the universal criminalization of religious defamation and in its campaign against all forms of “Islamophobia.” Most U.N. member-states supported these OIC resolutions, but, year in and year out over a decade, the United States has opposed them.

The U.S. embassy redefines and limits freedom of speech to that speech which others, and, explicitly Muslims, do not find offensive: The embassy asserts that to “hurt the religious beliefs of others” is to “abuse the universal right of free speech.” Of course, the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment protects even insulting and offensive speech, as well as “hate speech” and even advocacy of violence, unless the advocacy is directed to inciting imminent and likely violence (see the 1969 Supreme Court case Brandenburg v. Ohio). The First Amendment does not uphold the heckler’s veto — that is, expression does not lose its protection because the listener objects, even violently objects, to it. The embassy’s statement implies that U.S. First Amendment rights conflict with the “universal right of free speech,” and that the latter should take precedent.

The embassy may have been trying to appease fanatics who have expressed anger about a film they claim is being made in the U.S. that insults the Muslim prophet. If so, its statement denouncing American freedoms didn’t work; it is now being reported that an Egyptian mob today stormed the embassy wall, took down and burned the American flag, and tried to hoist al-Qaeda’s in its place.

Our ambassador over there is Anne W. Patterson, who holds the highest rank in the career Foreign Service. Her last post was to serve as U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, a country with one of the world’s strictest anti-blasphemy regimes. It appears Ambassador Patterson has forgotten that she’s in Cairo to represent America and its values. It’s time to bring her home.

The full U.S. embassy posting:

U.S. Embassy Condemns Religious Incitement

September 11, 2012

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. Today, the 11th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, Americans are honoring our patriots and those who serve our nation as the fitting response to the enemies of democracy. 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.

Nina Shea — Nina Shea is the director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom.

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