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.
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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