Giving the green light to grievance
The Obama administration seems to see free speech as a bigger problem than attacks on its overseas embassies.
Once again, we see images of demonstrations and rioting in capital cities across the Middle East. But unlike the Arab Spring, these protests are explicitly anti-American. Demonstrators have been gathering at US embassies, with placards denouncing the US and burning American flags. In Libya, four Americans, including the ambassador, were killed following an attack on the US consulate in Benghazi. In Lebanon, rioters burnt down that towering symbol of the Great Satan known as Kentucky Fried Chicken.
The spark for this trouble was an amateurish video, called ‘The Innocence of Muslims’, which apparently mocks the prophet Mohammed as a sexual deviant. (Only a trailer has been released; some doubt whether a full movie exists.) The recent events cannot be fully explained by this one movie; for one thing, it seems pretty clear that the attack in Benghazi was premeditated. But this obscure video has been at the forefront of demonstrators’ complaints.
Protesters across the Middle East called on the US to take the film out of circulation. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood, the organisation behind the recently elected Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi, urged the US government to prosecute the ‘madmen’ behind the video. Morsi himself called on the Egyptian embassy in Washington to take ‘all legal measures’ in the US against the makers of the film.
Of course, we have heard Muslim charges of blasphemy before – from Salman Rushdie to the Danish cartoons, to accidental Koran-burning in Afghanistan, and more. It seems like there is a perpetual grievance machine, ready to be activated no matter how obscure the source.
In response, US officials could have taken a firm stand for free speech. They could have stated that the government will not give in to complaints about cultural works being ‘insensitive’ or ‘offensive’, either in the Middle East or at home. But no. Instead, American authorities essentially conceded that the demonstrators have a point.
While protesters amassed outside its gates, the US embassy in Cairo issued a statement: ‘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… We firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others.’ In other words, embassy staff chose to condemn the filmmaker rather than the demonstrators. Furthermore, officials endorsed the protesters’ view that ‘hurt(ing) the religious beliefs of others’ should override free speech.
In the event, this ploy didn’t help; Cairo’s protesters breached the embassy’s walls and tore down the American flag. The Cairo embassy statement was widely criticised in the US. Perhaps we should cut the Cairo staff some slack, knowing that they probably felt very threatened and were desperately trying to stave off an attack. The Obama administration disavowed the statement, saying it did not vet it.
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But its disavowal of the Cairo embassy statement didn’t stop the Obama administration from proceeding to denounce the movie, thus validating the protesters’ petty grievances. Secretary of state Hillary Clinton deemed the film ‘disgusting and reprehensible’ and said the administration ‘absolutely rejects’ its contents. President Obama said ‘the United States rejects efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others’. Since when is the US government in the business of determining what is blasphemy and what isn’t? And now it appears the secretary of state job description includes movie criticism. As it happens, it was reported that Clinton attended The Book of Mormon, the Broadway play that satirises the Mormon faith - and oddly enough failed to give her thumbs up or down on that cultural attack on a religion.
What’s even worse is that the US authorities then began trying to quash the film. Remarkably, a top military official, Martin Dempsey, called the Koran-burning Florida pastor Terry Jones (congregation: 50), asking him to withdraw his support for the ‘The Innocence of Muslims’ and to tone down the Islamophobia. Then the White House called Google, the parent company of YouTube, and asked it to ‘review’ whether the film violates the site’s content guidelines. In other words, they were trying to find a reason to have the film censored. But it’s not the government’s task to identify content that it would like a private internet company to remove. To its credit, Google has kept the video up.
To top it off, the alleged filmmaker, Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, was then brought in for questioning after federal (that is, not local) authorities appeared at his Los Angeles home around midnight on Saturday night. The officers said they were checking whether Nakoula violated the terms of his probation – but the timing and midnight theatrics suggest they had other motives.
All of these investigations and intimidations suggest that the administration really does think that the video itself - and implicitly, free speech - is the problem that needs to be addressed. Perhaps Obama, Clinton and the rest of the administration believe that their denunciations of the video, along with throwing their weight around with YouTube, will impress the Muslim world. But if so, they are mistaken. US government moves such as these only appear to endorse grievance claims and invite more outbursts. Indeed, seeing pictures of Nakoula in the custody of sheriffs might give the impression that the government really does have the power to shut him up.
The Obama administration’s response to last week’s crisis was not only defensive; it also showed the US as flat-footed and confused. First, there was the lack of organisation and security at the embassies. And then confusion: at one point, President Obama was asked if Egypt was considered an ally or enemy; he said neither. As his advisers quickly pointed out, if you are giving more than $1 billion a year in aid to a country, it had better be an ally.
In today’s situation, there’s a good chance that anti-American protests in the Middle East would continue no matter how the White House responded. But with its craven concessions to the sensibilities of certain Muslims, the Obama administration is only pouring fuel on the fire.
Sean Collins is a writer based in New York. Visit his blog, The American Situation.