Memo to Obama: Speak for Free Speech
In my column for CNN, I urge President Obama to proudly and publicly defend free speech, even (and especially) when it is of the unpopular variety.
Cringe and propitiate: that's the Obama administration's response to the hucksters who have seized on a dopey YouTube trailer to enflame crowds across the Islamic world.
Administration officials have deplored and condemned the video, sometimes remembering to add a mention of the right of free speech (as incumbent Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did) and sometimes omitting it (see for example Sunday's performance by U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. and potential future Secretary of State Susan Rice on ABC's "This Week").
Blaming the video is convenient for the Obama administration. Blaming the video obviates questions about inadequate security at the Benghazi consulate. Even better, from the administration's point of view, the more we talk about the video, the less we talk about whether the administration made the right choices in its Libyan and Egyptian policies.
But blaming the video also imposes some ugly costs. Self-selected Muslim leaders exploit incidents like this to pose demands that threaten human freedom in the Middle East and around the world.
Even under the prior secular regime of Hosni Mubarak, Egypt regularly used blasphemy laws to persecute religious minorities and independent thinkers. That country's new Muslim Brotherhood government has already shown itself even more aggressively intolerant of dissenting speech, suppressing newspapers that print criticism of President Mohamed Morsi.
Pakistan's record is even worse, with courts pronouncing death sentences on supposed blasphemers, most recently a mentally impaired Christian girl accused of burning pages of the Quran. (She was released on bail Friday after it was established that her accuser, a local imam, had faked his evidence.)
Western countries, too, are targeted by demands for the regulation of speech deemed objectionable by certain Muslims. From "The Satanic Verses" uproar of 1989, through the Danish cartoon incident of 2006, to this latest video, European and American governments and media institutions have compromised their most cherished values to appease angry mobs.
Clear-eyed observers will notice that these periodic uproars are rarely, if ever, spontaneous. They are almost always contrived by political actors for political purposes. Ayatollah Khomeini's issuance of a fatwa against Salman Rushdie helped distract attention from the bitter decision to end the war with Iraq with a compromise peace he could have had six years earlier, sparing hundreds of thousands of Iranian lives.
The Danish cartoon incident was the work of freelance European imams, hoping -- like Al Sharpton in the Tawana Brawley case -- to promote themselves through a manufactured controversy. (The most provocative of the Danish cartoons were apparently fakes.) And this latest video uproar has been used by the Muslim Brotherhood government of Egypt to rally support against the last of the old leaders of the Egyptian army and security services.
Opportunistic leaders use these incidents in this way for one reason: They work. They gain results at low to nonexistent cost.
And unfortunately international institutions have lent legitimacy to these outrages.
Again and again over the past dozen years, the human rights bodies of the United Nations have adopted resolutions to condemn "defamation of religion" as a violation of human rights. The first of these resolutions, introduced in 1999 by Pakistan, specified the "defamation of Islam." More generic language was substituted, but everybody understands that only one religion is meant.
These resolutions are in no way legally binding on anybody. Yet they are very far from harmless. They allow persecution-minded governments and clerics to tell their citizens and adherents that they are not attacking human rights when they pronounce death in the name of religion. Oh no: they are upholding human rights.
The violence threatened against those who say things that displease some mullah has distorting effects on Western societies too -- and not just on low-life provocateurs such as the so-called "Sam Bacile."