How should Americans, and the U.S. government, react when some statement (in a book, video, tweet, or whatever medium) is made that insults a religion–and violence follows?
Even this soon after the events of the last two weeks some conclusions can be drawn.
First, there should be absolutely no compromise on the issue of freedom of speech. To many Americans this will seem obvious, but there is a huge drive around the world to prevent and criminalize any criticism of religion. As Salman Rushdie, who has lived under threat of death for his book Satanic Verses, recently said: “I think it’s very important that we hold our ground. It’s very important to say, ‘We live like this.’ ” And as that New York Times interview notes, Rushdie has been living in the United States because we have indeed held that ground when many other countries have ceded it.
Second, the United States government should not apologize for stupid or offensive comments made by private citizens. Here again Rushdie is right: “It’s not for the American government to regret what American citizens do. They should just say, ‘This is not our affair and the [violent] response is completely inappropriate.’ ” The reaction of our government in the recent case was wrong, and made us look fearful and weak. For one thing, I don’t believe such apologies work, and there is no evidence they did in the recent cases. But beyond the question of efficacy is the question of fairness and fear.
The fact is that religions are insulted all the time, in this country and beyond. Defamation of Catholicism is constant. The Broadway show “The Book of Mormon” is, the reviews state, a searing and blasphemous satire of the Mormon religion—yet our Secretary of State happily attended a performance and applauded. Defamation against Judaism is too frequent, not least in the Islamic world, to require much comment; many examples are available at the MEMRI web site here. Just today, to take another example, I came across the most recent Palestinian Media Watch report on the defamation of Judaism in official broadcasts of the Palestinian Authority. Every religion is defamed, yet apologies appear to be expected and to be offered only in one case: Islam. The explanation is clear: only in that case is there fear of violence.
Our reaction, and especially the reaction of the American government, should not be to offer apologies for the exercise of free speech by our fellow citizens, however benighted they may be. The Rushdie case is a reminder that the offense, and threat of violence, is not always the product of ignorant or deliberately provocative speech, and in any event why should the government pose as film or drama or literary critic? We should insist on the right to free speech and demand that other governments live up to their obligations to protect our citizens and property. The State Department spent $70,000 buying time on Pakistani television for an advertisement showing Secretary Clinton and President Obama in essence apologizing for the now-famous 14 minute anti-Muslim video trailer and emphasizing how much they disagreed with it. One has to wonder: did no one consider an advertisement saying that Americans believe in freedom of speech and religion, that millions of Muslims enjoy those rights in the United States, and that Pakistan has an obligation under international law to protect foreign embassies from violence?
Many citizens of Muslim countries will be on our side. Some will be religious minorities—Christians, for example—who seek protection of their own rights; others will be Muslims who wish to live under law rather than mob rule or rule by the mullahs. I believe the attacks of the last two weeks are largely an orchestrated response by religious radicals meant to enhance their own power at the expense of more moderate parties and governments. That riots or attacks occur tells us nothing about popular opinion, and we have seen recent responses in Libya (where there have been sizeable demonstrations against the murderous attack in Benghazi, and demands to rein in militias) that are a reminder of this.
Islamists seek to put the governments in a corner, where they must use force to protect the U.S. embassy or other facility. In Tunisia the new government met the test, using force when necessary to stop an assault on the embassy, arresting 96 people, and responding to a public mood that it is time to act against extremists. In other cases, such as Egypt and Sudan, the governments failed. It is that failure that our own government should criticize, not the use of the right of free speech by American citizens, and when governments act properly they should have our full and public support—as Sen. Marco Rubio explained eloquently in a Senate floor statement on September 20.
Third, because this kind of thing will happen again—some American saying something about Islam that leads to violence in Muslim countries—we should not forget about the last two weeks. We are in a moment of hyper-partisanship right now but after the election we should review what the U.S. government said and did, and whoever is elected should resolve that we must do better next time. Our highest officials cannot be put in—nor should they rush to take—the position of apologizing for every stupid or ignorant, much less for every intelligent and artistic, criticism of Islam. Far better to restate and hold firm to our principles; demand that other governments meet their obligations to protect our people and facilities; and give those many millions of citizens of Muslim majority countries seeking to live under the rule of law our firm support.
Further support for the conclusion just above is given at the MEMRI website, which summarizes some new content under the headline “Harsh Self-Criticism In Arab World Over Violent Reactions To Anti-Islamic Film:”
The attacks on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi and embassy in Cairo on the night of September 11, 2012, and the spread of violent protests to many countries in the Middle East have sparked unprecedented criticism in the Arab press of Arab and Islamic society and its way of dealing with the current crisis. Many articles claimed that violent protests harm the Prophet Muhammad and his way and are contrary to Islam’s moral standards, and that it would have been better to show the moderate and tolerant face of Islam by responding through artistic and cultural expression.
These are the kinds of views and reactions that we in the United States should encourage, and an insistence on freedom of speech is far more likely to achieve that goal than repeated apologies for the views of private citizens.