Obama's UN address Tuesday has been rightly described as a diplomatic balancing act in which he defended American values centered on freedom of speech, urged Muslim countries to embrace the same values, while trying to calm popular Muslim anger.
In his speech, the US President criticized Christian as well as Muslim extremists who react angrily when their religious views are offended but refuse to respect the feelings of others.
"The future must not belong to those who slander the prophet of Islam. But to be credible, those who condemn that slander must also condemn the hate we see in the images of Jesus Christ that are desecrated, or churches that are destroyed, or the Holocaust that is denied. Let us condemn incitement against Sufi Muslims and Shiite pilgrims
"It's time to heed the words of Gandhi: 'intolerance is itself a form of violence and an obstacle to the growth of a true democratic spirit.' Together, we must work towards a world where we are strengthened by our differences, and not defined by them. That is what America embodies, that's the vision we will support."
Obama's comments drew immediately strong criticism from American Christian right commenters who appear to think that by drawing a fine line of distinction in his speech between the letter of the provisions protecting freedom of speech and the spirit of tolerance, Obama attacked the Christian faith. According to The Guardian, many commenters on the right expressed the view that Obama's statement was a thinly veiled attack on Christians.
For instance, Eric Erickson, editor of RedState, writing under the provocatively misleading title "Obama declares future must not belong to practising Christians," argued that Christians have a right to be intolerant because,
"We should remember that tolerance is really not a Christian virtue. As Archbishop Chaput of Philadelphia noted, 'We need to remember that tolerance is not a Christian virtue. Charity, justice, mercy, prudence, honesty — these are Christian virtues. And obviously, in a diverse community, tolerance is an important working principle. But it’s never an end itself.' The Archbishop also noted that evil preaches tolerance until it is dominate and then it seeks to silence good... we should be mindful when the secular world demands tolerance for all, tolerance for all means we cannot have standards of faith to live by, because those standards obviously require we be intolerant of sins this world has embraced."
One can only answer Erickson that he has only highlighted why political, social world views and ideologies based on religions such as Christianity, Islam and Judaism are intrinsically dysfunctional systems. If Obama's homily on tolerance offends Christians (and Muslims), he can hardly be blamed.
The Christian conservative website Sword at the Ready, also accused Obama of launching an attack on Christian freedom of speech from behind an obscuring veil of double-speak which defends freedom of speech while attacking it by apologizing for the anti-Islamic film "Innocence of Muslims":
"Since all Islam demands everyone recognize Mohammad as God's true prophet – for the Salafists, Sufis and Shia – anyone who does not acknowledge the prophet is considered not only an infidel – but slander the prophet by their refusal to submit to him. Obama knows this having been raised a Muslim in Indonesia. His speech at the UN was an all-out assault on not only freedom of speech, but of faith. In cleverly cloaked words to deceive ignorant Americans, key phrases ping the ears that the Muslim world will understand what Obama really means."Hot Air also similarly criticizes Obama for feeling the need to apologize for the anti-Islamic video. The website comments Obama would have us believe that the video "was the catalyst that sparked these inexcusable recent events — even though, really, that video is not what any of this is or should be about at all, and I’m not really sure why it’s something the president feels the continual need to explain away."
Conservative analysts, however, miss the point in Obama's speech when they argue that it was a veiled attack on Christianity or an "all out attack on faith." NY Daily News correctly summarizes the diplomatically stated message in Obama's speech:
"When put succinctly, all Obama’s remark boils down to is, 'Dear Middle East, tolerance is a two-way street, so don’t forget to look both ways — sincerely, America.' "NY Daily News criticizes Erickson's take on Obama's speech: "Erickson seems to be looking for a way to shoehorn in the most nefarious possible interpretation of Obama’s words, even when the obvious meaning is there in plain sight. I really have no standing — or desire — to quibble with his theology. But to read Obama’s comment as a camouflaged point about the future not belonging to Christians strikes me as missing the whole point of the President’s speech."
Rather than being an attack on Christianity or an "all out attack on faith," Obama was admonishing Christians as well as Muslims to refrain from fueling mutual hatred through intolerance. But it seems that most religious conservatives cannot comprehend the subtleties of exercising freedom of speech while remaining mindful of the feelings of others! Obama makes himself clear that he is addressing the need for good judgment in exercising the rights of freedom of speech and religion:
"... the conflicts arise along the fault lines of faith, race or tribe; and often they arise from the difficulties of reconciling tradition and faith with the diversity and interdependence of the modern world. In every country, there are those who find different religious beliefs threatening; in every culture, those who love freedom for themselves must ask how much they are willing to tolerate freedom for others."
Obama's admonition cuts across to Erickson as offensive to the Christian faith only because he thinks intolerance is a Christian virtue, Obama's speech, however, defends freedom of speech while admonishing Christians as well as Muslims to exercise the right with restraint. His speech singles out the "Innocence of Muslim" film as an example of abuse of freedom of speech. Obama said: "That is what we saw play out the last two weeks, as a crude and disgusting video sparked outrage throughout the Muslim world. I have made it clear that the United States government had nothing to do with this video, and I believe its message must be rejected by all who respect our common humanity. It is an insult not only to Muslims, but to America as well – for as the city outside these walls makes clear, we are a country that has welcomed people of every race and religion. We are home to Muslims who worship across our country. We not only respect the freedom of religion – we have laws that protect individuals from being harmed because of how they look or what they believe. We understand why people take offense to this video because millions of our citizens are among them."
But immediately after condemning the film, Obama launches into a spirited defense of freedom of speech: "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."
Unfortunately, inability to grasp the subtleties of Obama's argument leads to accusation of "foreign policy weakness" Hot Air , for instance, criticizes Obama's "apology" for the anti-Islamic video: "If we believe that all people have a right to express their views, even ones with which we disagree, why are we still talking about this dumb video? The video is not the point. The Obama administration has already had to revise their original version of the chaos in Libya and labeled it as the terrorism that it was, but President Obama conspicuously failed to mention terrorism in relation to Libya in his speech. Why do I feel like this was a speech designed to sound so-so on promoting our American values but simultaneously pander to the people who would criticize us for them? "
Hot Air expresses disappointment, saying: "There was an opportunity for a real display of strength and courage here in the wake of all of this unacceptable violence, and the president declined to take it."
Similarly, NY Daily News comments: "there’s certainly an argument to be made — as Bloomberg’s Jeffrey Goldberg did yesterday —that a sterner approach might be called for at this stage of Obama’s efforts to reach out to the Middle East,"
While anyone can appreciate that the causes of the popular anger in the Muslim world go beyond the "dumb video," the fact still remains that the anti-Islamic video triggered the expression of the simmering anger. In the circumstances, diplomacy requires an "apology" for the video. But of course, if you are a smugly conservative American locked in the restrictive American point of view of global affairs, you may not immediately understand this because you will not appreciate, for instance, why US unmanned aerial drone strikes in Pakistan, which according to Digital Journal, are killing hundreds of innocent Muslim civilians, should generate such intense anti-American feelings in the Middle East.
To a large extent, the failure of right wing hawks to understand, appreciate and sympathize with some of the root causes of popular anger in the Muslim world is a sterling demonstration of human insensitivity locked in a restrictive point of view of affairs. What Americans who agree with Romney's stupidly arrogant comments about Obama's "weak foreign policy" fail to appreciate is that the US is already wielding a very big stick in the Middle East, and that a "sterner approach" or further "display of strength in the wake of unacceptable violence" could only further rub salt into the wound" and do nothing to promote US geo-political strategic interests. Digital Journal reports a recent study, "Living Under Drones," in which researchers interviewed about 130 civilians living in northern Pakistan, where US drone operations have taken a heavy toll on innocent civilians. The report reads:
"Drones hover 24 hours a day over communities in northwest Pakistan, striking homes, vehicles and public spaces without warning. Those living under drones have to face the constant worry that a deadly strike may be fired at any moment, and the knowledge that they are powerless to protect themselves."
The fact is that the intimidating US military superpower presence and the unabashedly pro-Israel foreign policy of the US, makes Arab Muslims uncomfortably aware of their powerlessness. In such circumstances, it is a display of supremely insensitive arrogance that some Western freedom of speech mongers would think it is their American values privilege to produce without backlash, insulting films about what Arab Muslims hold most sacred, their prophet and faith.
It is not enough for you to drop bombs over our heads in our homes, you must also insult our prophet! Allah Akbar!
Feelings of powerlessness breed frustration and pent-up anger. Your only need an "amateurish movie" to set off the trigger of rage.
It is not weakness, but diplomacy for Obama to wield the "aerial drone big stick" in the Middle East, emphasize commitment of his administration to freedom of speech, while at once offering an apology for the anti-Islamic film to calm popular feelings. Obama's defense of the core Western values was unequivocal. “There are no words that excuse the killing of innocents. There is no video that justifies an attack on an embassy. There is no slander that provides an excuse for people to burn a restaurant in Lebanon, or destroy a school in Tunis, or cause death and destruction in Pakistan. Now I know that not all countries in this body share this particular understanding of the protection of free speech. But when anyone with a cellphone can spread offensive views around the world with the click of a button, the notion that we can control the flow of information is obsolete."
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of DigitalJournal.com