The Hell-Hole Spectator

Democracy Headwinds

Free speech and Tuesday's thuggish attacks.

By 9.13.12

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It's another cold front for the Arab Spring.

A lunatic mob has stormed our embassy in Libya, killing four including the ambassador. The assailants reportedly attacked with rocket-propelled grenades. The late diplomat, J. Christopher Stevens, was the first American ambassador murdered by jihadists since 1979. May he rest in peace.

Hours earlier, more than 2,000 Egyptian protesters gathered at our embassy in Cairo where many tried to scale its walls. One of the American flags was seized and burned. A protester tried to climb up the flagpole and fly a black banner that read, "There is no God but God and Muhammed is His Messenger."

The supposed source of all this froth is a satirical movie called "Innocence of Muslims" that portrays Mohammed as a gay opportunist who furthers his fortunes by calling for extramarital sex and child slavery. The film, directed and produced by a man named Sam Bacile, isn't packing theaters nationwide; in fact, it hasn't even been released yet. But a few trailer snippets drifting around YouTube were supposedly enough to incite a mob to murder an ambassador.

Actually "Innocence of Muslims" probably had very little to do with the violence. This was the usual crowd of young, furious, Islamist extremists that have been popping up with regularity throughout Egypt and Libya. The movie was just the latest excuse to scream and throw rocks, this time exactly eleven years after the 9/11 attacks. This wasn't about cinema; it was about a caliphate.

And that's what makes the official American response so bizarre. The U.S. Embassy in Cairo released a statement condemning "Innocence of Muslims": "We firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others." After the consulate in Benghazi was attacked, the embassy tweeted that they stood by their comment. Under pressure, the State Department later withdrew the statement and deleted the Tweet.

Then Hillary Clinton denounced the violence, but added that "The United States deplores any intentional effort to denigrate the religious beliefs of others."

Really? What, then, is the official United States position on Richard Dawkins? Dawkins, the biologist and author of atheist canons, thinks religion is the "root of all evil." What of Ann Coulter, who wrote, "I believe our motto should be after 9/11: jihad monkey talks tough; jihad monkey takes the consequences"? Will Hillary Clinton denounce Monty Python's Life of Brian? Friedrich Nietzsche? Bertrand Russell? The Last Temptation of Christ? Bill Maher's entire existence? Family Guy? South Park?

Where was she when the late Christopher Hitchens said of my Catholic Church, "This is disgraceful, it's inhuman, it's obscene, and it comes from a clutch of hysterical, sinister virgins, who've already betrayed their charge in the children of their own church!"

Hitchens was wrong about that, but today is one of those days you wish he still had access to a pen. One of the (many) things that made him angry was the equivocal response from so many Westerners when the Iranian regime put a death sentence on Salman Rushdie. He had no tolerance for those who mentioned creative expression and violence in the same condemning breath. Neither should we.

But we do. And so we get this from the MSNBC hive mind, talking about Florida pastor Terry Jones who praised the "Innocence of Muslims" movie:

MIKE BARNICLE: Given this supposed minister's role in last year's riots in Afghanistan, where people died, and given his apparent or his alleged role in this film, where, not yet nailed down, but at least one American, perhaps the American ambassador is dead, it might be time for the Department of Justice to start viewing his role as an accessory before or after the fact.

DONNY DEUTSCH: I was thinking the same thing, yeah.

We should prosecute people who laud people who make movies about people who get angry about it. It's like Barnicle was being channeled by Thomas Jefferson himself.

On Twitter, Libya's deputy prime minister, Dr. Mustafa Abushagur, condemned the violence, calling it "an attack on America, Libya, and free people everywhere." No buts, yets, or howevers. Why, at a moment when American soil was invaded by homicidal Islamists, wasn't our response just as clear?

Perhaps "The Innocence of Muslims" is offensive and stupid. But one of America's most worthwhile enterprises is its First Amendment-protected right to free speech. Here you're allowed to be offensive and stupid, and others are allowed to be offensive and stupid about you.

The State Department called free speech a "universal right." No it's not. Anyone who followed the Canadian Human Rights Commission's witch hunt of Mark Steyn knows its limitations abroad. The United Nations has tried several times to pass a resolution that outlawed blasphemy and defamation.

Speech freedom gets to the larger problem of America's understanding of the Middle East and the Arab Spring. The notion is that democratic rights are man's natural state and once suffocating dictators like Saddam Hussein or Hosni Mubarak are removed, liberty will flourish.

But liberty is more complex than that. Our First Amendment didn't randomly bloom in Thomas Jefferson's mind. It was the product of an evolution that wound its way through ancient Rome, the Magna Carta, John Locke, and Montesquieu. That's a lot of philosophical bedrock for something we take for granted. And even after we had our First Amendment, it almost immediately came under threat by the Alien and Sedition Acts.

We've had centuries. The Arab Spring has had a year-and-a-half.

However many inspirational (and brave) democratic thinkers there are in the Middle East, they're matched by a faction of thugs that wants to delete freedom and impose Islamic Law. That foundation for individual rights isn't there yet. Thus you have the Muslim Brotherhood taking control of Egypt and articles praising them for wanting a "balance on Islamic law." That doesn't sound very Spring-like. Get rid of a Mideast dictator and natural rights don't breeze through the region; at best, they evolve and develop slowly, tortuously, and in competition with other ideologies.

Which is why there's going to be plenty more violence, especially after yesterday. Al Qaeda's attacks are quick and easy. Liberty is gradual and painstaking.

None of this means the situation is hopeless. The United States should stand with certain freedom fighters in the Middle East: certainly the democracy movement in Iran, fresh and young, is still a great hope. But don't expect the Arab world to immediately embrace our freedoms. And likewise, don't shamefully deplore the exercise of those freedoms. They make us more unique than we think.

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About the Author

Matt Purple is The American Spectator's former assistant managing editor.