On September 11 and 12, 2012, all hell broke loose in the Arab world. On September 11, the U.S. Embassy in Egypt was invaded by hordes of Islamists, who tore down the American flag and unfurled a black Islamist triumphalist flag similar to that of al-Qaeda. On September 12, in Libya, in an organized attack, Libyans destroyed the American consulate in Benghazi and killed four Americans, including the U.S. Ambassador. Since then, Yemen, Pakistan, Indonesia, Tunisia, the Sudan, India, the United Kingdom, Germany, and many more nations have seen tremendous protests and/or riots on the street.
The cause of this outbreak of violence, supposedly, but not really, was over a California based filmmaker’s amateurish film depicting the Muslim prophet Mohammed. Islam, of course, frowns on any depictions of their prophet; let alone the extremely negative portrayal found in this picture.
As the offensive picture originally came out months ago, the film – called “The Innocence of Muslims” – was clearly a pretext for Islamists to coordinate a campaign of violence against American free speech regarding Islam. In that, it is very similar situation to what happened in the aftermath of the publication of the Danish cartoons in 2005. This should not be too surprising, since Islamists have had great success from their Danish campaign – few papers in the West reprinted the Danish cartoons and other Western press and media organizations have self-censored their own Danish cartoons related speech, including Yale Press. Further, the Danish Cartoon Controversy is not the only successful Islamist pressure campaign success against free speech over the years – see the campaigns against Pope Benedict’s speech; Molly Norris and Americans’ who have burned Korans, either deliberately to provoke a reaction or accidentally. So, it must be asked, why should Islamists stop using a tactic that clearly works for them?
Indeed, in the United States, thanks to the Obama Administration, the anti-free speech Islamist pressure campaign worked even better than before. What is so disturbing about this is that President Obama should know better; he has often been praised for his brilliance as a constitutional scholar. But the Obama Administration has done almost nothing but appease the Islamist speech bullies, while showing only the most tepid support for our First Amendment rights.
Let’s look at the Obama Administration’s record regarding this situation.
- After hearing of potential protests, the U.S. Embassy in Egypt released an apology to the Islamist Egyptians that condemned those who “abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others.” It also issued apologetic “tweets” that condemned the film. Only later were all these comments disavowed by the White House—though they continued to be affirmed by the State Department. In fact, until recently muddying the waters, members of the Administration, including the Press Secretary and the UN Ambassador, had continued to go to great lengths to insist that the film was at fault for the rioting and violence.
- On September 12, the Obama administration unsuccessfully tried to insert into a UN Security Council press statement, issued in response to the killing of the Ambassador in Libya, language against the denigration of religions. France vetoed this.
- The Obama Administration asked Google, which owns YouTube, to remove the offending film from that site. Had Google complied, this would have actually have been a reversal of Google’s earlier ruling that the video was not hate speech under its rules because it did not specifically incite violence against Muslims.
- After the filmmaker was outed by a disapproving media, federal law enforcement interrogated him in the middle of the night for the minor probation violation of uploading the film onto YouTube. This act alone prompted a prominent libertarian constitutional blogger to call for President Obama’s resignation. The filmmaker has since been jailed for these probation violations.
- In his speech before the UN, President Obama marred what could have been a teachable moment by continuing to link the actual violence to the film, spending much time denouncing the film, and most disturbingly, uttering language that treated the murder of Coptic Christians in Egypt, the bullying of women, and the “slander(ing) of the prophet of Islam” as if they were all equal evils.
- Joint Chief of Staff General Martin Dempsey called Pastor Terry Jones – who himself had conducted earlier mock ceremonies where the Koran was burned – although he had no involvement with the film – to dissuade Jones from, in any way, contributing to this situation. General Dempsey claimed that the call was his own idea, but considering that Jones has also fielded similar calls in the past from other Executive officials, this Dempsey claim strains credulity. Presumably, soon Jones will be on the Executive branch’s speed dial.
- When the French magazine Charlie Hebdo published its Mohammed cartoons, the Obama Administration protested the “judgment” and “offensiveness” of the magazine, but made no mention of any right to free speech.
- The State Department has aired advertisements in Pakistan showing prior apologies for the film from President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton.
Given the overwhelming reaction from multiple agencies of the executive branch, this appeasement is more than just a one-time error, but a policy. The Obama Administration has consistently shown poor instincts when it comes to protecting free speech. The Administration has participated in the “Istanbul Process” that seeks to implement UN Resolution 16/18, which seeks to restrict speech that “denigrates” Islam. The Department of Justice has also refused to affirm free speech before Congress. And most shockingly, the Administration has signed onto an Interpol Agreement which makes that international police force immune from the restraints of American law, theoretically allowing Egypt, which is seeking a warrant against “the eight defendants implicated in producing an amateur film that denigrates Islam and Prophet Mohamed,” to enforce their blasphemy law in the U.S. And this wouldn’t be the first time that a Muslim country used Interpol to arrest a blasphemer.
All in all, this is a disappointing record on free speech for a president who once taught constitutional law. Then again, I know the president lectured primarily on civil rights law, and not free speech. However, considering how badly he seems to understand and value the First Amendment, one can only hope that his lectures on civil rights law were more grounded in the U.S. Constitution and the established law. Otherwise, his former law students might want to demand a refund.