Barack Obama: President and Protector of Islam's Prophet
United States President Barack Obama addressed the United Nations General Assembly this past week, on September 25, 2012. During his remarks on his country's role in international relations, Obama, in the midst of his comments otherwise within the mainstream of American discussions, proclaimed that the "future must not belong to those who slander the prophet of Islam." This single phrase entails deeply disturbing implications for the defense of free speech critical of Islam against multiplying threats from various adherents of this faith. This statement also introduces intellectual confusion into the rest of Obama's remarks extolling individual freedom while condemning bigotry and insults. This philosophical quagmire ultimately is resolvable only through reflection upon Obama's presumed future troubling policy course.
Obama's reference to Islam's prophet Muhammad came amidst a series of cited future threats to global social well-being. "On so many issues," Obama outlined, "we face a choice between the promise of the future, or the prisons of the past." "The future must not belong to those who target Coptic Christians in Egypt," Obama's rhetorical litany began -- "it must be claimed by those in Tahrir Square who chanted, 'Muslims, Christians, we are one.'" Nor must the "future ... belong to those who bully women" or "to those corrupt few who steal a country's resources" or "to those who turn their backs on a prospect of peace" in the Arab-Israeli conflict or "to a dictator who massacres his people" in Syria.
Elaborating on the Innocence of Muslims trailer, Obama called it a "crude and disgusting video" that "sparked outrage throughout the Muslim world," although Obama admonished that "no speech ... justifies mindless violence." Obama proclaimed that the film's "message must be rejected by all who respect our common humanity." He termed the trailer an "insult not only to Muslims, but to America as well ... a country that has welcomed people of every race and every faith."
Yet Obama rejected any legally punitive measures against Innocence of Muslims or any similar expression, in contrast to the various forms of coercion Obama would presumably be willing to accept with respect to the other threats cited. In the Innocence of Muslims controversy, though, Obama saw "play out" a conflict between "those who find different religious beliefs threatening" and "those who love freedom for themselves" but "must ask themselves how much they're willing to tolerate freedom for others." Obama confessed to "know there are some who ask why we don't just ban such a video," but the "answer is enshrined in our laws: our Constitution protects the right to practice free speech." "Like me," Obama asserted in a claim rabidly rejected by some on the basis of admittedly spurious evidence, "the majority of Americans are Christian, and yet we do not ban blasphemy against our most sacred beliefs."
The American reasoning behind such behavior is not "because we support hateful speech, but because our founders understood" that in a "diverse society," speech restriction can become a "tool to silence critics and oppress minorities." The "strongest weapon against hateful speech is not repression," Obama concluded; "it is more speech -- the voices of tolerance that rally against bigotry and blasphemy." As a practical matter, moreover, "when anyone with a cell phone can spread offensive views around the world with the click of a button, the notion that we can control the flow of information is obsolete."
Obama presented these arguments within his speech's call for liberty worldwide. "True democracy" affirmed by Obama "demands that citizens cannot be thrown in jail because of what they believe" and allows the "freedom of citizens to speak their minds." Such "freedom and self-determination," moreover, "are not unique to one culture" and "are not simply American values or Western values -- they are universal."
Yet Obama also qualified his comments with the recognition that "not all countries" represented in the General Assembly share America's "particular understanding of the protection of free speech." "We do not expect other nations to agree with us on every issue," he stated in another passage. Indeed, one statement by Obama would seem positively to invite punitive action against the makers of Innocence of Muslims as described by Obama under various hate speech and public order laws around the world. Obama called upon his applauding audience "to heed the words of Gandhi: 'Intolerance is itself a form of violence and an obstacle to the growth of a true democratic spirit.'"
The resulting advocacy of freedom articulated by Obama is thus convoluted and tenuous with respect to the key issue of liberty in dispute today between the world's free societies and Muslim-majority countries -- namely, criticism of Islam. The numerous previously cited passages praising individual freedom of conscience clash with Obama's aforementioned grouping of the American producers of the home movie-quality film Innocence of Muslims condemnatory of Islam's prophet Muhammad with a veritable rogues' gallery of international security threats subject to sanctions including even military force. Obama continued such moral equivalence later in the address, rejecting the assumptions "that the violence of the past weeks or the hateful speech by some individuals represent the views of the overwhelming majority of Muslims, any more than the views of the people who produced this video represents those of Americans." Yet Obama called it the "obligation of all leaders in all countries to speak out forcefully against violence and extremism" presumably manifested in equal measure by the filmmakers and by their rioting and terroristic Muslim antagonists.
Other questionable equivalences occurred in another of Obama's statements. For the sake of being "credible," Obama called once again with applause upon "those who condemn" Innocence of Muslim's "slander" to "also condemn the hate we see in the images of Jesus Christ that are desecrated, or churches that are destroyed, or the Holocaust that is denied." Innocence of Muslims equals hereby physical vandalism or the denial of historically proven genocide, even though, as this author has previously discussed, much of the film's contents concern events discussed in Islamic canonical sources. The Obama administration, meanwhile, refused last week even to condemn publicly a recent retrospective exhibit of Andres Serrano's "art" including the notorious Piss Christ photo of a crucifix submerged in Serrano's own urine. Manifesting once again the oft-noted double standards concerning offense to Christians and Muslims, this photo not only is protected under the Constitution cited by Obama, but also received a 1989 federal National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) grant for its original creation.
Obama's citing of "slander," however and by whomever defined, against Islam's founder as a future danger puts Obama in the strange position of a president of a self-proclaimed non-sectarian republic protecting one faith's prophet. Such deference to Islam is occurring precisely in an age when historically Christian countries, if not actually reviling their spiritual heritage, are at least relativizing it in the name of multicultural harmony. The heir to the British throne, Prince Charles, for example, has in the past expressed a desire to be a Defender of Faith in general upon becoming king -- and not any exclusive Defender of the Faith, a historic title referring to the British monarch's role as Head of the Church of England.
More troubling is what Obama's statements portend for free speech. While the Constitution referenced by Obama prevents him from restricting whatever he deems "slander" of the "prophet of Islam" in the United States, Obama's unequivocal condemnation of Innocence of Muslims gives enthusiastic approval for other, less legally constrained countries to sanction this film or any other similar expression. Even in the United States, criticism of Islam inconvenient for authorities like Obama might entail negative consequences. Following Innocence of Muslims' tumultuous global debut, the Obama administration's suggested to Google a review of any possible company policy violations by the film's internet posting -- a posting that has also prompted a federal investigation into whether the film's producer, Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, violated his parole. (The filmmaker was subsequently arrested.)
Such actions indicate that future officials will seek any technicality analogous to the proverbial "spitting on the sidewalk" as leverage against "blasphemy" condemned by Obama. Despite Obama's proclamation of universal principles before the U.N., his words and actions indicate less than courageous compromise.