Terra Incognita: Disgrace, tragedy at US embassy in Cairo

Just because someone is offended does not mean freedom of speech has been “abused,” it certainly isn't “abused” by critiques of religion.

Protesters in front of the US embassy in Cairo 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Protesters in front of the US embassy in Cairo 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
September 11, 2012, should go down in history as the day the American diplomatic corps officially attacked one of its country’s most cherished values, one that has set it apart from much of the world for the past 236 years of independence.
On that day, US Embassy grounds were invaded by an Egyptian mob of soccer hooligans and Islamist fanatics who tore down the US flag as it was flying at half-staff in commemoration of 9/11 and replaced it with a black flag encouraging the world to convert to Islam: “There is one God and Muhammad is his prophet.”
The US Cairo Embassy’s response? “We firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others.”
Ostensibly, the riot was brought on by Egyptian television and incitement by Salafist preachers who had spread a rumor that a movie was being shown in the US which insulted Islam. The film is unknown in the West and the US, as CNN reported, “it is not clear which film upset the protestors in Cairo.”
Fox News initially attributed promotion of the film to Egyptian Coptic Christian activists in the US, one of whom was named as Morris Sadek, who was promoting the movie on his website. The movie had been dubbed into Arabic by someone other than its creator. The BBC noted that it was primarily the protestors who alleged the film was offensive.
“The film which sparked the protest is said to have been produced by US pastor Terry Jones and co-produced by some Egyptian Copt expatriates.”
WHAT HAPPENED was that a few radical Islamist activists led by Salafist Wesam Abdel-Wareth, found a home-made movie online, dubbed it into Arabic and then began passing it off as a “film shown in the US.”
This galvanized the radical Egyptian media, which incited the public further. Egyptian Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa on Sunday the 9th added incitement and misinformation when he condemned “the actions undertaken by some extremist Copts who made a film offensive to the prophet.” Two days later Al- Ahram online reported, “angry demonstrators torch American flag to protest anti-Islam film made by USbased Coptic group.”
Egyptians of all stripes, from the spokesman of the Muslim Brotherhood to an engineer on the street, demanded that the filmaker be prosecuted, even though they had received false information about who made the film and how it came to be dubbed into Arabic.
No attempt was made, by the US Embassy or the Egyptian government, to explain that the movie was not a mainstream production, that it was not made by Coptic Christians, and that it was probably watched more in the Islamic world, pushed on people in order to offend them, than in the US.
This is very similar to an incident recently in Pakistan in which a Christian girl named Rimsa Masih, who is disabled, was accused of burning the Koran.
Mobs were whipped into a frenzy by an imam named Khalid Christi and the fanatics were told to destroy the Christian’s house and remove all the Christians from the area. The girl was arrested for “blasphemy.”
However on September 9, she was released when the police discovered that it was in fact the imam who had inserted pages of the Koran into some burned garbage at the girl’s house. He said it was “a way of getting rid of Christians.”
In Egypt the similar Elders of Zion-style fabrication was passed off with easy perfection. The US Embassy staff, it has been reported, were almost all sent home by security “after learning of the upcoming protest.”
The Egyptian police were noticeably unattentive and absent when the protesters attacked the embassy compound, scaled its walls, which are several meters high, and tore down the US flag. Later the police “negotiated” with the protesters to get them to leave.
Egyptians told reporters that “If [American] freedom of speech has no limits, may you accept our freedom of action.”No one has asked why the “rage” suddenly erupted on 9/11 of all days.
WHAT IS fascinating is that, as if in lock-step with the religious fanatics and hooligans, the US Embassy condemned not the violation of its diplomatic post or the incitement, but rather America. Yes, the US Embassy condemned America by blaming freedom of speech that “hurt religious feelings.”
Freedom of speech in America, especially as it pertains to religion, has always been held to be a fundamental principle of American law and culture. In one of the most famous Supreme Court cases, Cantwell v.
Connecticut (1940), Newton Cantwell and his two sons were arrested for distributing offensive religious literature to Catholics. They were charged with “inciting a common law breach of peace” because they had handed out pamphlets that condemned the pope and mocked organized religion.
The Cantwells were accused of “breach of peace” because their pamphlet led several Catholics to physically attack them.
In a unanimous decision the judges found in favor of the Cantwells: “Freedom of conscience and freedom to adhere to such religious organization or form of worship as the individual may choose cannot be restricted by law. On the other hand, it safeguards the free exercise of the chosen form of religion. Thus the [First] Amendment embraces two concepts – freedom to believe and freedom to act. The first is absolute but, in the nature of things, the second cannot be.”
Luckily, Cairo’s US State Department flunkies who trampled on the US Constitution so as not to offend religious “feelings” were never given the opportunity to sit on the bench of the Supreme Court. The US Embassy statement, titled “US condemns religious incitement,” claimed: “The Embassy of the United States in Cairo condemns the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims.”
Let’s understand the full implication of this. The US Embassy was aware that a riot would take place on 9/11. In order to be aware of the riot, it had to have been aware of its cause, namely a home-made movie.
Yet the embassy staff saw fit to condemn the “continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims.”
What “continuing efforts”? Which “misguided individuals”? Rather than condemn the radical Egyptian preachers and misguided television hosts who dubbed the video and claimed it was an “American” and “Coptic” film, the US Embassy turned on its own country’s most cherished values.
In the Pakistan blasphemy case, a lie was created in order to stir up a mob. Why didn’t the US Embassy rush to join the mob there, too, and condemn the Christian girl for her “misguided” acts that “hurt the religious feelings of Muslims”? Perhaps the US Embassy would have felt strange standing with those persecuting someone for blasphemy.
We can only guess what the position of the the US Cairo embassy would have been had it been around during the Spanish Inquisition in the 16th century.
Would it have stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the inquisitors, demanding the heretics stop their “misguided...
abuse of free speech to hurt the religious feelings of others”? After all, the Catholic inquisitors’ feelings had been hurt by the rejection of the papacy; they had been deeply offended by those Jews and Muslims who faked their conversions. What will the Cairene branch of the State Department do about Egyptians’ “hurt feelings” regarding gay marriage? Will the US Embassy say that gay marriage will have to go, because those “misguided” gays have dared to hurt someone’s religious feelings? THE US government must immediately remove from their positions whoever penned this offensive condemnation of freedom of speech. Towards that end it appears the statement has been removed from the front of the website and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has condemned the embassy attack, which has now also cost the lives of US diplomats in Libya, but she nevertheles attacked those whose “intentional efforts denigrate the religious beliefs of others.”
Nevertheless, an investigation should be launched by the US Congress into why the State Department knew that a riot was going to occur and nevertheless left the US flag flying so it could be destroyed.
A separate line of investigation should examine why the Egyptian police abandoned their posts and why the Egyptian government did not protect sovereign US territory. A stern warning must be sent to Egypt that collaborating with fanatical mobs will not be rewarded.
But whatever actions are taken, the damage has already been done. Instead of using this as an opportunity to illustrate to Egyptians how they are being misled by radical incitement in their media, the Cairo embassy shamed itself by siding with a mob of fanatics acting on baseless claims, and condemned freedom of speech.
Just because someone is offended does not mean freedom of speech has been “abused,” and it certainly is not “abused” by critiques of religion. When we condemn every form of speech that “hurts feelings,” we will find that “hurt feelings” are used as an excuse for all sorts of thuggish behavior. Socrates, Galileo and Charles Darwin were all accused in their life of hurting religious feelings and denigrating beliefs. When we throw away our values because others claim to be “offended,” we surrender to mobs of intimidation, censorship and intolerance.