Deaths of Amb. Stevens and Staff Stretch Meaning of Free Speech to the Breaking Point

The death of U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens and three staff persons, apparently by a grenade launcher attack, came hot on the heels of an attack on the U.S. embassy in Cairo. The Daily Beast reports:

At least 2,000 demonstrators, enraged over Innocence of Muslims, a little-known film produced in the United States that allegedly insults the Prophet Muhammad, shouted, “We will sacrifice ourselves for you, Allah’s messenger!” A group of men managed to mount the embassy’s walls.

… Al-Azhar [University in Cairo], one of the Arab world’s most elite centers for higher Islamic learning, reportedly condemned the film on Tuesday, citing a scene in which a character based on the Prophet Muhammad goes on trial. The Wall Street Journal reported that Innocence of Muslims’ writer, editor, and producer is a 52-year-old American, Sam Bacile. [Pastor Terry] Jones is promoting the film, whose new 14-minute Arabic-dubbed trailer on YouTube depicts the Prophet as a deranged womanizer calling for massacres.

You may remember Jones, the pastor of a Gainesville, Florida congregation called the Dove World Outreach Center, from his threat to burn the Koran in 2010. It resulted in the deaths of five protesters and seven UN employees in Mazar-e Sharif, Afghanistan and nine in Kandahar.

Rev. Jones has also been active in spreading the myth to gullible Americans that the Islamic world seeks to impose shariah law in the United States. (Under the category of FWIW, Jones was a member of the same high-school graduating class in Missouri as Rush Limbaugh.) As for Al-Azhar University — founded in the tenth century! — one could argue that it should know better than to treat Jones as representative of Americans. In fact, though, many Americans share Jones’s belief and the Al-Azhar administration, no doubt aware of that, can hardly be blamed for defending Islam.

Meanwhile AlJazeera reports:

Abdel Moneim al-Yasser, a member of the interim committee monitoring security in Libya, told Al Jazeera: “A handful of renegades of people who are attacking the national interests of Libya are behind this issue. We are still investigating on their identity [...] we will track them and bring them to justice.”

… Two other staff were injured, El-Dressi reported. The deaths were confirmed by Wanis al-Sharif, the Libyan deputy interior minister, to the AFP news agency.

Addressing a press conference, Sharif blamed loyalists of former Libyan ruler Muammar Gaddafi for the attack, while stressing that the US should have removed its personnel from the country when news of the film’s release broke.

In other words, it’s possible that, it wasn’t Islamist extremists, but Gaddafi supporters who may have taken advantage over outrage over the film to engender hostility in Washington towards the new Libyan government. In any event, were it not for Jones, it’s safe to say that Ambassador Stevens and his staff would still be alive.

Like the threats to burn the Quran, Jones once again pushes the boundaries of free speech just short — or past — inciting a riot. After the 2010 incidents, Brad Knickerbocker of the Christian Science Monitor wrote:

The controversial Westboro Baptist Church [in Topeka, Kansas, is] best known for its anti-gay protests, often held at the funerals of American soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. While such activities held by the Westboro Baptist Church and the Dove World Outreach Center may be highly offensive to most Americans – and may, in fact, incite others to violence – they are generally protected as free speech.

[In March, 2010] the US Supreme Court upheld the right of the Westboro Baptist Church to hold its protests at military funerals.

“Speech is powerful. It can stir people to action, move them to tears of both joy and sorrow, and – as it did here – inflict great pain,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the majority opinion for a case brought by the father of a Marine killed in Iraq. “On the facts before us, we cannot react to that pain by punishing the speaker.”

That provides scant solace to the families of Ambassador Stevens and his staff or the protesters who were killed in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, if U.S. law protects those who make wild allegations against Islam, it’s easy to understand why some Muslims assume it’s up to them to protect their religion.