Is the First Amendment up for debate? On Monday's front page New York Times Cairo bureau chief David Kirkpatrick soft-pedaled the extremism that caused Muslims in several countries to violently protest America on the pretext of an amateurish film uploaded onto Youtube: "Cultural Clash Fuels Muslims Raging at Film – Devout Values Conflict With Free Speech."
One would hope that "free speech" would emerge the clear winner with a Times journalist covering the story. But Kirkpatrick played the "context" card, sidestepping the clear attacks on free expression demanded by Islamic extremists to the point of sounding apologetic for free expression.
Stepping from the cloud of tear gas in front of the American Embassy here, Khaled Ali repeated the urgent question that he said justified last week’s violent protests at United States outposts around the Muslim world.
“We never insult any prophet -- not Moses, not Jesus -- so why can’t we demand that Muhammad be respected?” Mr. Ali, a 39-year-old textile worker said, holding up a handwritten sign in English that read “Shut Up America.” “Obama is the president, so he should have to apologize!”
When the protests against an American-made online video mocking the Prophet Muhammad exploded in about 20 countries, the source of the rage was more than just religious sensitivity, political demagogy or resentment of Washington, protesters and their sympathizers here said. It was also a demand that many of them described with the word “freedom,” although in a context very different from the term’s use in the individualistic West: the right of a community, whether Muslim, Christian or Jewish, to be free from grave insult to its identity and values.
Kirkpatrick almost made the First Amendment sound like a bad idea.
In a context where insults to religion are crimes and the state has tightly controlled almost all media, many in Egypt, like other Arab countries, sometimes find it hard to understand that the American government feels limited by its free speech rules from silencing even the most noxious religious bigot.
Kirkpatrick duly forwarded a laundry list of alleged insults against Islam, none of which came close to making an excuse for the deadly rioting (and reports indicate the video was at most a pretext for the deadly raid on the consulate in Libya).
Others said that the outpouring of outrage against the video had built up over a long period of perceived denigrations of Muslims and their faith by the United States or its military, which are detailed extensively in the Arab news media: the invasion of Iraq on a discredited pretext; the images of abuse from the Abu Ghraib prison; the burning or desecrations of the Koran by troops in Afghanistan and a pastor in Florida; detentions without trial at Guantánamo Bay; the denials of visas to prominent Muslim intellectuals; the deaths of Muslim civilians as collateral damage in drone strikes; even political campaigns against the specter of Islamic law inside the United States.
Similarly, in a September 14 Times front-page story on the deadly attacks in Libya and Egypt, reporters David Kirkpatrick, Helene Cooper, and Mark Landler blandly marked the violence down to "different traditions":
The pressure from Mr. Obama put Mr. Morsi in a vise grip of competing values and world views. Scholars say the furor here reflects different traditions when it comes to religious rights and freedoms. Where Americans prize individual choice, Egyptians put a greater emphasis on the rights of communities, families and religious groups.