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Obama’s State Department (of Relativism): For Free Speech and Against It in Same Sentence

State Dept. spokesman P.J. Crowley's contradictory response to Pakistan's censorship of the internet belongs to a worrisome trend in Western societies.

by
Barry Rubin

Bio

May 25, 2010 - 12:00 am

Here’s a tough problem they didn’t teach at Government Spokesman Preparatory School. Within a few hours of the president’s signing of a press freedom bill — with much pomp about his love for the liberty of the media, ironically followed by a refusal to take questions from real live reporters — State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley was asked this:

Do you have any comment on Pakistan’s blockage of … YouTube and other Internet sites?

Pakistan had just made the decision to block certain sites because some carried pictures of Muhammad. How would P.J. Crowley respond? Fortunately, the State Department prepared a statement for him:

Obviously, this is a difficult and challenging issue. Many of the images that appear today on Facebook were deeply offensive to Muslims and non-Muslims alike. We are deeply concerned about any deliberate attempt to offend Muslims or members of any other religious groups. We do not condone offensive speech that can incite violence or hatred.

We also believe that the best answer to offensive speech is dialogue and debate, and in fact, we see signs that that is exactly what is occurring in Pakistan. Governments have a responsibility to protect freedom of expression and the free flow of information.

The best antidote to intolerance is not banning or punishing offensive speech, but rather a combination of robust legal protections against discrimination and hate crimes, and proactive government outreach to minority religious groups and the vigorous defense of both freedom of religion and expression.

We respect any actions that need to be taken under Pakistani law to protect their citizens from offensive speech. At the same time, Pakistan has to make sure that in taking any particular action, that you’re not restricting speech to the millions and millions of people who are connected to the internet and have a universal right to the free flow of information.

Crowley’s response tries to balance freedom of speech with political correctness, plus the administration’s policy. Granted, his situation wasn’t easy and he was trying to give a reasonable response (much more so than the snippets appearing in some media make it seem). But what Crowley seems to be saying is that Pakistan has the right to censor the Internet, but that shouldn’t interfere with others having the ability to use it.

And then he hedges on that hedge.

For example, should a picture of Muhammad be “deeply offensive” to non-Muslims? Why? Assuming they wish to show Islam respect, it is in no way against their custom to have such pictures. And, if it is deeply offensive … is that a bad thing?

After all, since everyone knows that saying certain things — sometimes even quoting Muslim texts — is “offensive to Muslims,” those exercising free speech can be said to be engaging in a “deliberate attempt to offend Muslims.”

So when Crowley says that the U.S. government takes a position on saying certain things, isn’t that unwarranted and unprecedented interference with Americans’ right to free speech? And where is the line between “offensive speech” that someone knows in advance will be “offensive” and a hate crime? Indeed, how can anyone even maintain that under the U.S. Constitution there can even be such a thing as a verbal hate crime unconnected with an actual criminal act (assault, murder, arson, vandalism, etc.)?

While each religion can choose to define what deeply offends it, why should it expect everyone else to accept that definition? If that happens, the religion in question (which today generally means only Islam) is thus granted veto power over what everyone else does. And that’s dangerous.

It’s outrageous for Crowley to characterize what is occurring in Pakistan as being “dialogue and debate.” This is a country where Christians are persecuted and murdered (with no Western protest), where members of the Ahmadi sect are discriminated against, and that is a world center of anti-Semitism. Pakistani Christians are often beaten or murdered based on allegations that they have done something “offensive” regarding Islam.

Crowley is of course right in saying governments should safeguard free speech. But all the meaning is drained from this because his “robust legal protections against … hate crimes” include, in most countries, steps that do punish free speech, as per Canada, the Netherlands, and many other places. So how can you deal with this very real contradiction, unless you acknowledge that the mere act of speech — unless it involves a direct threat of violence or other regular crime — is never a hate crime?

By the way, this was taken for granted in American law until a few years ago.

What does a “proactive government outreach to minority religious groups” mean? Does that include apologizing and offering special treatment, or explaining that the customs of Western democratic countries include the ability to draw pictures of Muhammad or show him as a cartoon character on television?

The reporter then asked:

But who’s to say that Pakistan isn’t simply playing to the more conservative religious factions in order to maintain political viability?

It isn’t Crowley’s job to analyze other countries’ motives, but this question contains an important implication. Once upon a time, we thought there were forces of “progress” and forces of “reaction.” The former wanted democracy, modernization, freedom, equality of women, and not murdering people for alleged heresy. Now, however, if you change the word from “heresy” to “causing offense” or “multiculturalism,” that apparently legitimizes the opposite practices.

Crowley answered with something revolutionary:

There needs to be a balance to make sure that in rightly restricting offensive speech, or even hate speech, that Pakistan continues to protect and promote the free flow of information.

In effect: keep the data flowing, but censor anything that offends you. Crowley began with U.S. respect for Pakistani law, but ended by endorsing Pakistani law. The U.S. State Department has proclaimed, in the name of the American government and people, that it is right to restrict “offensive speech.”

The reporter was understandably bewildered:

But blocking a … website doesn’t seem to go toward promoting free flow of information.

Crowley finally responded with what he should have said in the first place:

We certainly fully understand how material that were posted on this particular page were offensive to Pakistanis and members of other Muslim majority communities around the world. But at the same time, we do in fact support the universal principle of freedom of expression, free flow of information, and we will continue to promote Internet freedom.

The conclusion? The administration’s thinking is confused. On one hand, embracing “old-think,” it supports a universal principle of freedom of expression. Yet on the other hand it endorses the censorship of what any current authority deems to be “offensive speech.”

I fear that this apparent contradiction is a trend in which the Pakistani model will be more and more inculcated into Western societies.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition, Viking-Penguin), the paperback edition of The Truth about Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan), and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley). The website of the GLORIA Center is at http://www.gloria-center.org and of his blog, Rubin Reports, at http://www.rubinreports.blogspot.com.
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