The last few weeks have witnessed a peculiar and disturbing spectacle: An American administration that has spent a great deal of time and energy apologizing for our liberties—in particular, for what many would regard as the foundation of all our other liberties, namely, the freedom to express our minds as we see fit. This signature freedom, of which Americans were once so boastful, has clearly become a source of befuddled embarrassment to the current administration and many of its liberal supporters. Nowhere has this been more evident than in the speech President Obama delivered before the UN Assembly yesterday. The president was bold and strong in making clear that there can be no excuse for the riots that have swept the Muslim world, but he was weak in his defense of our most fundamental freedom. The president came across as if he regarded the right to free speech as a bothersome and irritating nuisance that Americans put up with solely because it's one of our quaint and bizarre local traditions, instead of celebrating it as a moral lesson to mankind and a blessing bequeathed to us by our ancestors. It did not seem to bother Obama in the least that he was apologizing to the world for the First Amendment, and that is very troubling.
Unfortunately, the president is not alone in his mixed feelings about the First Amendment in our post-Arab Spring era. Many of the same liberals who have always pushed the First Amendment as far as they possibly could have suddenly decided that it has been pushed a bit too far. Some of them seem to regret that the First Amendment to the Constitution left out a clause prohibiting insults to Islam and its prophet Mohammed. Of course, the Founding Fathers couldn't think of everything, and it is hard to blame them for failing to foresee, more than two centuries in advance, just how useful such a prohibition would be in dealing with the Muslim cultural revolution known as the Arab Spring. For let there be no doubt about it, what is currently standing in the path of peaceful coexistence between the United States and the Muslim world is not the state of Israel, much less the producers of the film, Innocence of Muslims—no, it is that troublesome First Amendment. That is what is really fanning the flames of fanaticism, and nothing else—a moral utterly lost to the current administration in its misguided efforts to appease Muslim fury by pursuing a policy of abject apologetics.
Since the commencement of the current crisis, the Obama administration has repeatedly explained to the offended followers of the Prophet that the U.S. government had nothing to do with making the obnoxious film that, via its posting on YouTube, has set off weeks of bloody riot all across the Muslim world. This, of course, is quite true, but beside the point. Those who think that the rioters are foolish to attack the U.S. government for a film made by a lone crackpot are underrating the rioters' intelligence. They know the U.S. government didn't make the movie. What enrages them is that the U.S. government allowed such a movie to be made in the first place, and, even worse, that the government didn't do the proper thing after it discovered who was responsible for making the blasphemous film—namely, to behead the blasphemer, in accordance with Sharia law. No doubt there are some moderate Muslims who would have probably been content with a less drastic punishment, such as hanging, and even a few liberal ones who would have been satisfied with a long prison term. But, across the spectrum, Muslims are not upset because of what our government did, but what it failed to do—punish an individual for exercising his constitutionally protected right to free expression.
Failure to understand this fact has produced the grotesquely inept apologies emanating from the Obama administration in the wake of the latest outbreak of Islamic fanaticism. Does the administration really believe that it is helping matters when it goes out of its way to pile one insulting epithet upon another in its zeal to show how ghastly and outrageous it thinks the movie is? The more the administration reviles and derides the movie, the more fuel it adds to the fire that it is attempting to douse. In effect, the administration is telling the Muslim world: "Yes, we are in perfect agreement that Innocence of Muslims is blasphemous and obnoxious, and you have every right to feel deeply outraged by it—but of course we don't plan to do a thing about it." Is it any wonder that the Muslim response is, "If you agree with us that the movie is blasphemous, how can you stand by and permit those who made it to escape their due punishment?" In short, the more the Obama administration attempts "to feel the pain" of offended Muslims, the deeper it offends them.
The problem is that the Obama administration cannot even pretend to feel the pain that Innocence of Muslims causes in the breasts of the Islamic faithful. But the administration is by no means alone on this point. There are not many Americans who can feel this pain—thank God. Sure, we too get offended by the constitutionally protected exercise of free speech that we happen to dislike. Some of us are offended by those who burn the American flag, neo-Nazi websites, sacrilegious depictions of Jesus, or by pornography. But we don't riot about such things. We don't threaten anyone's life over such matters. We don't proclaim huge bounties on the heads of those who have offered us this offense. We grumble and bitch, true, but we keep the peace.
This was not always the case. Before the Civil War, for example, advocates of the abolition of slavery risked their lives to express their deeply felt convictions—some even lost theirs when they were attacked by frenzied mobs. Even during my own childhood, white Southerners who publicly championed civil rights often faced the risk of physical violence for expressing their views, while black civil rights leaders knew perfectly well that they were risking their lives. But those days are thankfully behind us. Looking back at those who used violence to silence those who offended them, we can clearly see them for what they were—fanatics.
The triumph of toleration over fanaticism is at the heart of the great success story of the West, but it has left us at a loss in dealing with the Islamic revival that is perhaps the most significant fact of our time. In the news clips on TV, we can certainly see the genuine rage and pain of those Muslims who have been rioting over what they consider to be the ultimate blasphemy. We know they are not pretending. But we cannot even pretend to feel their rage, pain, and anguish. On the contrary, we can only feel our own indignation and disgust at their way of expressing their rage and pain. That is why it is so absurd when Western liberals seriously think they are helping matters by heaping scorn on the amateurish quality of the ill-starred movie, as if its lack of production values, a competent director, and an all-star cast were the root of the problem. They aren't.
The root of the problem lies in the very values that the liberal tradition has historically prized, much to the benefit of the world—the freedom to speak out loud what we think inside. This is a freedom that no fanatic is prepared to tolerate. It is the freedom that the Muslim world is no more willing to embrace now, in the wake of the Arab Spring, than it was in centuries past, going back to the days of the Prophet.
Today, ominously, this is the very freedom that Muslims around the world are trying their best to suppress in the United States and in the West at large—and that is why our leaders must stop apologizing for our liberties. You can apologize to those who are civil enough to accept an apology, but you cannot apologize to a fanatic. It only serves to convince him that he was right all along.