DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – In U.S.-funded ads running on Pakistani TV, subtitled clips show President Barack Obama extolling America’s traditions of religious freedom.
For many watching, though, the message misses the mark in efforts to calm the Islamic outrage over a film denigrating the Prophet Muhammad.
America’s free speech laws and values of openness are not in question, but rather there is confusion and anger over how they are applied.
A powerful theme binding the protests from Indonesia to Africa is the perception that the U.S. codes of free speech are somehow weighted against Islam – permitting the Internet video that insults the faith but placing clear limits on hot button issues such as hate speech, workplace discrimination and even what is acceptable on prime-time network TV.
Beyond the rage, bloodshed and death threats – churning now for two weeks – is a quandary for American policymakers that will linger long after the latest mayhem fades: How to explain the U.S. embrace of free expression to an Islamic world that increasingly sees only double standards?
Although there are many nuances – including strict U.S. laws when hate speech crossed the line into threats or intimidation – they are mostly lost in the current outrage that included a peaceful march Monday in Nigeria and Iran threatening to boycott the 2013 Academy Awards after the country’s first Oscar-winning film this year.
With each protest, many clerics and Islamic hard-liners hammer home the narrow view that America is more concerned with political correctness or safeguarding children from sexual content than the religious sensibilities of Muslims.
In Gaza, preacher Sheik Hisham Akram said tolerance is the goal, but the “red line” is crossed with “anyone who insults our religion.”
Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – now in New York for the U.N.’s annual General Assembly – denounced last week the “deception” of U.S. laws protecting rights while allowing the clip from the film “Innocence of Muslims,” which portrays Muhammad as a womanizer, religious fraud and child molester.
“In some extent, it’s not an issue of condemning America’s freedom of speech. It’s become an issue, in the eyes of many Muslims, over where the lines are and why they are not protecting the feelings of Muslims,” said John Voll, associate director of the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University in Washington.
It also turns the $70,000 U.S. ad initiative in Pakistan – one of the hotbeds of the protests – into a major challenge to gain any ground. Besides Obama, the spots include Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton repeating that U.S. authorities had no connection to the video.
It’s part of wider U.S. strategies to use social media and other forums to reach out to moderates in the Islamic world – including what the State Department has described as a “virtual embassy” for Iranian web surfers. But the fallout from the film has so far drowned out appeals for calmer dialogue in places such as Pakistan, where at least 23 people have died in unrest linked to the film.
“The fact that [the Obama administration] is trying to step up to the plate and trying to engage where the debate is really happening should be commended,” said Daniel Markey, a senior fellow in South Asian affairs at the Council on Foreign Relations. “But what credibility do they have to deliver this message? That’s a different story. ... It’s unlikely to make the sale on the Pakistani street.”
At the U.N., a separate effort is being spearheaded by Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, secretary-general of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. He said the film will be at the top of the agenda of a meeting of the 57-member group on the sidelines of the General Assembly.
Among the proposals is a call to impose an international law against promoting religious hatred. Such appeals could get widespread support, but are nearly certain to collide with Western free speech codes and be rendered difficult to enforce in the borderless world of the web.
Already, many moderate Muslim scholars and leaders have urged the U.N. or other international bodies to step in to help define possible global standards on religious expression.
Paul Bhatti, an adviser to the Pakistani prime minister, told a multifaith crowd of Muslims, Christians and others outside the country’s parliament Sunday that international laws should be imposed to limit the most hateful fringes of Western free speech.
But just a day earlier, a Pakistan government minister offered a $100,000 bounty for the death of the filmmaker.
The two responses – one appealing for a higher law and the other taking justice into his own hands – frame another divide pried wider by the latest chaos: How much leeway can Muslim countries allow for expressions of anger against their faith?
While many Muslims believe American protections for open expression were abused by the film, there are also moderate voices in the Islamic world questioning whether the defense of their religion is warped by death threats and violence that has left dozens dead, including the U.S. ambassador to Libya.
“This is the flip side to the criticism against American free speech,” Voll said. “This is another major learning opportunity inside Muslim societies to look at themselves and interactions with the world. We have been here before.”
But the latest upheavals appear to resonate even deeper because of the widening reach of the web and social media, which also have played a central role in the Arab Spring uprisings that have opened new political space for hard-line Islamists.
“Sadly, the voices of reason and logic in this part of the world are few,” said Ebtehal al-Khateeb, a Kuwait University professor and human rights activist. “Even those who strongly oppose the violence prefer not to speak.”
Kuwait is a particularly instructive proving ground in the struggle to clarify an Islamic version of free speech.
After Islamist-led opposition groups gained control of parliament in February, they tried to push through measures that included the death penalty for blasphemy against Islam. Kuwait’s Western-leaning rulers signaled they would reject the move and later suspended the parliament over election law technicalities.
“The truth is that as amateurish movie production is, it still falls in the category of freedom of speech,” al-Khateeb said. “If you say that to people here, they will read your response as: ‘You accept this. You are a blasphemer.’ They still don’t understand that they don’t have to accept it. They can oppose it, but in a civil manner that is more constructive.”
Associated Press writers Ibrahim Barzak in Gaza City, Asif Shahzad and Zarrar Khan in Islamabad, Adam Geller in New York, and Hussain al-Qatari in Kuwait City contributed to this report.