Friday, September 14, 2012

Romney was foolish, but right

We can take it as a given that if the star Alpha Centauri were to suddenly explode, Mitt Romney would issue a communiqué blaming the Obama White House.

The Republican presidential candidate has taken flack for criticizing the administration in the aftermath of the attacks against American diplomatic missions in Egypt and Libya, at a time when national unity would have been more becoming. The tenor of Romney’s remarks was foolish: he outrageously suggested that the administration had shown “sympathy” for the attackers, then somehow ignored that you never criticize your government when American lives have been lost.

However, the candidate also made a defensible point in arguing that American officials had, at one point, failed to adequately defend the American constitutional right of free expression. “We stand for the principles our Constitution protects,” Romney stated, and “[w]e encourage other nations to understand and respect the principles of our Constitution, because we recognize that these principles are the ultimate source of freedom for individuals around the world.”

The topic of disagreement was a statement released by the American Embassy in Cairo before Egyptian protesters gathered outside the facility. To defuse rising tension over an American video critical of the Prophet Muhammad, the embassy publicly condemned those who had “hurt the religious feelings of Muslims.” It also affirmed that “[r]espect for religious beliefs is a cornerstone of American democracy. We firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others.”

The problem with the last sentence is immediately evident. The universal right to free speech, as understood in the United States, allows individuals to hurt the religious beliefs of others. There is no abuse here under American law. Those individuals behind the Muhammad film, or who have defended it, may be the scum of the earth, and the vulgar showboating of Pastor Terry Jones has cost too many lives. Yet American constitutional principles protect their folly.

In fact, the Obama administration, realizing the problem, later disavowed the embassy statement (of which Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had initially disapproved), even as it accused Romney of playing politics over a national tragedy. No doubt Romney was doing so, as was the Obama administration, which sought to nail the Republican candidate for opposing a statement it also opposed.

The debate over how free should free speech be when it comes to religion is a recurring facet of the discord between Western nations and the Muslim world. The tradition in the West is to allow criticism of religion, whatever the price. Most Western societies are inheritors of the Enlightenment, which ultimately separated Church and State. Moreover, these societies’ modernization rested, to a significant extent, on transcending the stranglehold of religious establishments.

In the Muslim world the situation was more complex. During the 19th century, thinkers such as Jamal al-Din al-Afghani and Muhammad Abdu saw Islam as a potential lever of social and political reform and revitalization. At the same time, a parallel trend emerged, one often associated with minority publicists, that perceived the rebirth of the Arabs in broader cultural and nationalistic, therefore somewhat more secular, terms. During subsequent decades Arab nationalism grew further apart from Islam. At the height of the Arab nationalist phase during the 1950s and 1960s, there was a deep disconnect in many states between secular regimes and Muslim political groups.    

Islam as a religion distinguishes far less between the secular and the religious than do Western societies. However, this also applies to non-Muslim minorities in the Middle East, who will fully integrate their religious identity into their political identity. That is why when discussing where to draw the line between free speech and respect for religion, the focus on Islam is misleading; there is also a refusal among non-Muslims to favor free expression in religious matters. 

Such a debate may seem irrelevant in light of growing suspicion that the attack in Benghazi had nothing to do with free speech or Islam; rather, that it was carefully prepared by Salafists seeking to regain the initiative inside Libya. Maybe, but that the American government, through the White House and the Cairo embassy, was of two minds over how to respond to the Muhammad film, showed that the United States is uncertain about which democratic values to defend in its interactions with foreign, particularly Arab, countries.

In a sense Romney was right: Trying to find a middle ground between free speech and respect for religion just won’t work. No compromise will be reached that does not impinge either on the rights of advocates of free speech or on the sensitivities of believers. In that case, America does best by standing up for what it holds dearest, namely the notion that people in America have a right to express their views unreservedly, without having to fear violent retribution, no matter how objectionable they are or how distasteful their views.

Will this message gain legitimacy in the Arab world? Almost certainly not. A vast majority of Arabs, not to say many Americans, will always regard religion as off-limits when it comes to free expression. There will be more deaths to lay at the door of this debate of the deaf. And everyone will justify their actions by using the name of God in vain.

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