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US response to Middle East protests: validating grievances, sacrificing free speech

Once again, we see images of demonstrations and rioting in the capitals across the Middle East. But unlike the “Arab spring”, these protests are explicitly anti-American: gathering at US embassies, with placards denouncing the US and American flags in flames.  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 Great Satan known as Kentucky Fried Chicken.

The spark 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 pre-meditated – 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 organization behind the recently-elected Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi,  urged the US government on to prosecute the “madmen” behind the video. Morsi himself called on the Egyptian embassy in Washington to take “all legal measures” in the United States against the makers of the film.

Of course, we have heard Muslim charges of blasphemy before – from Salman Rushdie to Dutch 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 it will not give in to complaints about cultural works being "insensitive" or "offensive" (in the Middle East – as well as at home). But no.  Instead, American authorities essentially conceded that the demonstrators have a point.

While protesters massed 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 film-maker rather than the demonstrators. Furthermore, they 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 criticized 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.

But their disavowal of the Cairo embassy statement didn't stop the administration from proceeding to denouce the movie, and 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.” Excuse me, but since when is US government is 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 Hillary attended The Book of Mormon, the Broadway play that satirizes 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 US government authorities then began to try to quash the film. Remarkably, a top military official, Martin Dempsey, called the Koran-burning Florida pastor Terry Jones (congregation: 50), asking him withdraw his support for the “Innocence of Muslims” and to tone down the Islamaphobia.  Then the White House called Google, the parent company of YouTube, and asked the company to “review” whether the film violates the site’s content guidelines – in other words, they were trying to find a reason to have it censored. But it’s not the government’s task to identify content that it would like a private internet company to remove; and to its credit, Google has kept the video up.

To top it off, the alleged film-maker, 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 (see photo above). 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. And maybe they believe that their denunciations of the video, along with throwing its 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 organization and security at the embassies. And then confusion: at one point, President Obama was asked if Egypt was considered an ally or enemy, and he said neither. As his advisers quickly pointed out, if you are giving more than $1 billion a year in aid to Egypt, it 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.

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