To contain mass protests in Pakistan over a now infamous anti-Islamic film, President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton appear in a $70,000, U.S.-funded ad on Pakistani television denouncing the film and saying America “respects all faiths.”
This joint White House-State Department effort seems terribly misguided, as I would wager that Pakistanis are angrier with Washington dropping bombs on their domes—both cranial and architectural. But what makes this public relations endeavor particularly ill conceived is that, on a basic level, the U.S. Government should be taking this opportunity to promote one of its core foundational principles: the free speech of private citizens.
The ad does not do that. It instead emphasizes America’s tolerance for religious freedom without reference to other fundamental rights. I recognize that Obama and Clinton not only want to stop the anti-American protests, but also challenge the misconception that private and public speech in America are essentially one and the same. But when demonstrators in Peshawar are burning movie theaters and setting fire to posters of female movie stars, our leaders convey the impression that they are kowtowing to radicals. (It should be noted that the savagery perpetrated by radicals in the Muslim world disgusts many moderate Muslims.)
It is bad enough that Pakistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has asked its American counterpart to have the anti-Islamic film removed from YouTube. It would be worse if Washington fulfilled that expectation by obliging. As writer Salman Rushdie has said of the protests more generally, free speech is at risk because “religious extremists of all stripes” attack people who criticize beliefs.
Americans live under a different set of laws and customs and should never be scared into bending to extremists. And, however offensive the film mocking Mohammed was, there is no excuse for the violent behavior on display.