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Don't blame the video; defend free speech

David Frum says President Barack Obama should use his U.N. address later this month to vigorously defend free speech.

Story highlights

  • David Frum: Obama team has focused response on blaming the offensive video
  • He says it enables White House to avoid questions about security and foreign policy
  • Frum says Obama and aides should be forthrightly defending freedom of speech
  • President should use his U.N. General Assembly speech to take a strong stance, Frum says

Cringe and propitiate: that's the Obama administration's response to the hucksters who have seized on a dopey YouTube trailer to enflame crowds across the Islamic world.

Administration officials have deplored and condemned the video, sometimes remembering to add a mention of the right of free speech (as incumbent Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did) and sometimes omitting it (see for example, Sunday's performance by U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. and potential future Secretary of State Susan Rice on ABC's "This Week").

Blaming the video is convenient for the Obama administration. Blaming the video obviates questions about inadequate security at the Benghazi consulate. Even better, from the administration's point of view, the more we talk about the video, the less we talk about whether the administration made the right choices in its Libyan and Egyptian policies.

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But blaming the video also imposes some ugly costs. Self-selected Muslim leaders exploit incidents like this to pose demands that threaten human freedom in the Middle East and around the world.

David Frum

Even under the prior secular regime of Hosni Mubarak, Egypt regularly used blasphemy laws to persecute religious minorities and independent thinkers. That country's new Muslim Brotherhood government has already shown itself even more aggressively intolerant of dissenting speech, suppressing newspapers that print criticism of President Mohamed Morsy.

    Pakistan's record is even worse, with courts pronouncing death sentences on supposed blasphemers, most recently a mentally impaired Christian girl accused of burning pages of the Quran. (She was released on bail Friday after it was established that her accuser, a local imam, had faked his evidence.)

    Western countries, too, are targeted by demands for the regulation of speech deemed objectionable by certain Muslims. From "The Satanic Verses" uproar of 1989, through the Danish cartoon incident of 2006, to this latest video, European and American governments and media institutions have compromised their most cherished values to appease angry mobs.

    Clear-eyed observers will notice that these periodic uproars are rarely, if ever, spontaneous. They are almost always contrived by political actors for political purposes. Ayatollah Khomeini's issuance of a fatwa against Salman Rushdie helped distract attention from the bitter decision to end the war with Iraq with a compromise peace he could have had six years earlier, sparing hundreds of thousands of Iranian lives.

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    The Danish cartoon incident was the work of freelance European imams, hoping -- like Al Sharpton in the Tawana Brawley case -- to promote themselves through a manufactured controversy. (The most provocative of the Danish cartoons were apparently fakes.) And this latest video uproar has been used by the Muslim Brotherhood government of Egypt to rally support against the last of the old leaders of the Egyptian army and security services.

    Opportunistic leaders use these incidents in this way for one reason: They work. They gain results at low to nonexistent cost.

    And unfortunately international institutions have lent legitimacy to these outrages.

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    Again and again over the past dozen years, the human rights bodies of the United Nations have adopted resolutions to condemn "defamation of religion" as a violation of human rights. The first of these resolutions, introduced in 1999 by Pakistan, specified the "defamation of Islam." More generic language was substituted, but everybody understands that only one religion is meant.

    These resolutions are in no way legally binding on anybody. Yet they are very far from harmless. They allow persecution-minded governments and clerics to tell their citizens and adherents that they are not attacking human rights when they pronounce death in the name of religion. Oh no: they are upholding human rights.

    The violence threatened against those who say things that displease some mullah has distorting effects on Western societies too -- and not just on low-life provocateurs such as the so-called "Sam Bacile."

    This month, Britain's Channel 4 broadcast a new documentary on the historical origins of Islam, written and narrated by the distinguished classicist Tom Holland and based on Holland's previous book on the subject. Holland's book and documentary presented in accessible form the fruits of recent scholarship, widely accepted by leading academic authorities. That research points to Islam originating in Syria, not Arabia; points to parts of the Quran being translated from other languages, especially Aramaic; and points to the probability that Islam coalesced as a religion after the conquest of Mesopotamia and Persia rather than beforehand. As I mentioned, these are not new insights, but to date they have been published mostly by academics in books written for academics.

    When this knowledge was made available to the broader public, however, it generated more than 1,000 complaints to British TV licensing authorities and death threats against Holland. Last week, a scheduled public screening of the documentary was canceled because of security concerns.

    By threat of violence, Western intellectual life is policed and corrupted.

    The YouTube video "Innocence of Muslims" is no monument to either art or scholarship. It's a shabby piece of hack work. But it is as protected by the right to speak as the work of Rushdie or Holland -- because if it is not, their rights will be truncated too, as indeed they have been.

    The Obama administration's response to date to the video incident has been depressing and shameful. It's not too late to change course.

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    President Barack Obama delivers his annual address to the United Nations on September 25. Let him take time in that speech to refute and repudiate blasphemy laws. Let him say that he upholds and vindicates free speech as an American right and that he respects and endorses free speech as a universal human right.

    Let him say that Americans will be protected in their speech rights against threats of violence from anyone, anywhere. Let him say that if freedom of speech means anything, it means first and foremost the right to criticize orthodoxy, political or religious. Let him say that freedom of speech includes the right to mock, to be rude, to be stupid and to be wrong -- because we know that speech that is stupid and wrong will be rebutted, refuted and mocked in its turn.

    Not everyone shares the American regard for free speech. That's their lookout. But the leaders of the United States will not be bullied into compromising their most cherished values -- and their most solemn constitutional obligations -- by inciters of mobs, by would-be dictators and by overweening street preachers. Let him say that, too.

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