Obama Blows an Opportunity During the Blasphemy Riots

Blasphemy, as Hussein Ibish argues, is an indispensable human right. I'm not much into blasphemy myself -- I generally find it offensive. But as Americans, we are compelled to defend the right of any blasphemer to be an asshole. This is the essence of free speech. We are not a country, and not a civilization, that suppresses unpleasant speech. We believe that the way to battle bad speech is with good speech. We are a modern society precisely because people here are free to say what they want. This is a lesson that President Obama could have carried to the Muslim world last week. But he didn't. 


(UPDATE: He finally went part of the way today, telling the United Nations General Assembly that: "I know there are some who ask why we don't just ban such a video. The answer is enshrined in our laws: our Constitution protects the right to practice free speech. Here in the United States, countless publications provoke offense. Like me, the majority of Americans are Christian, and yet we do not ban blasphemy against our most sacred beliefs. Moreover, as President of our country, and Commander-in-Chief of our military, I accept that people are going to call me awful things every day, and I will always defend their right to do so. Americans have fought and died around the globe to protect the right of all people to express their views -- even views that we disagree with.")

 From my Bloomberg View column yesterday:
Given the obvious truth that this latest spasm of (ostensibly) blasphemy-induced rioting won't be the last, I think that Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton squandered an opportunity to treat Muslims like thinking adults and to advance a core American interest: the spread of freedom.

Blasphemy, we have come to learn, is taken quite seriously by Muslims. Free speech, however, is taken quite seriously by Americans. It would have been bracing for the president to go on Pakistani television, and to sit for interviews with Egyptian and Tunisian journalists, and stand up for a core American principle. Imagine a speech in which Obama described the mechanics of free speech and the undergirding philosophy that protects it. He could have spoken about the great gifts free speech bestows on a society. He could have spoken about how he himself is attacked mercilessly by a free press, yet he still values the principles that allow him to be attacked. He could have described how Christianity is often the target of attack, yet survives and thrives in the U.S.

This wouldn't have been an easy message to deliver. As Hussein Ibish of the American Task Force on Palestine told me, many of these protesters simply can't fathom the existence of a political system in which the government has no control over the news media, or over what gets posted on the Internet.

Would it work? It wouldn't change the minds of Salafists, and al-Qaeda would continue to seek to kill Americans, whether or not some among us continue making idiotic anti-Muhammad videos. But a bold, uncompromising and guilt-free defense of free speech might have given comfort to the many Muslims, religious and secular alike, who want to lead their lives free of the fear of fundamentalist tyranny, and who would prefer the U.S. not attempt to reason with the mob.
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Jeffrey Goldberg is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and a recipient of the National Magazine Award for Reporting. He is the author of Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror. More

Before joining The Atlantic in 2007, Goldberg was a Middle East correspondent, and the Washington correspondent, for The New Yorker. He was previouslly a correspondent for The New York Times Magazine and New York magazine. He has also written for the Jewish Daily Forward and was a columnist for The Jerusalem Post.

Goldberg's book Prisoners was hailed as one of the best books of 2006 by the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Slate, The Progressive, Washingtonian magazine, and Playboy. He received the 2003 National Magazine Award for Reporting for his coverage of Islamic terrorism and the 2005 Anti-Defamation League Daniel Pearl Prize. He is also the winner of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists prize for best international investigative journalist; the Overseas Press Club award for best human-rights reporting; and the Abraham Cahan Prize in Journalism.

In 2001, Goldberg was appointed the Syrkin Fellow in Letters of the Jerusalem Foundation, and in 2002 he became a public-policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.

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