Those who seek to portray President Obama as the leader of the “blame America first” crowd got a little ahead of themselves last week.
As Mitt Romney rushed to a microphone to condemn the Obama administration for its response to vandalism and heated protests outside the American Embassy in Egypt, he failed to acknowledge, much less unpack, even the slightest nuance of the situation.
Hard-line Muslims in the Middle East were outraged, as they are wont to do rather frequently, by an amateurish video posted online portraying the prophet Mohammad as an imbecilic pedophile.
We’ll set aside what the response would be from the Christian right were the religious shoes swapped in this equation. I concede it wouldn’t be massive violent protests but it would be quite severe. After all, we’re talking about a part of America that is fighting an imaginary war over Christmas.
But let’s dissect the Muslim outrage and the response RNC Chairman Reince Priebus said was “sympathizing with attackers in Egypt.”
First, I’ll offer the full context of the statement made by the American Embassy in Cairo:
“The Embassy of the United States in Cairo condemns the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims – as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions. ... Respect for religious beliefs is a cornerstone of American democracy. We firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others.”
Mitt Romney’s response:
“It’s a terrible course for America to stand in apology for our values.”
Excuse me? Since when is religious tolerance not an American value?
This isn’t a question of a president’s foreign policy — it’s much more basic than that. This is a question about how we want the rest of the world to view us. I, for one, applaud diplomats who, rather than hunker down and hurl invectives at those who dare question America’s free-speaking ways, instead encourage civility and attempt to foster understanding where there is presently only conflict.
If one thing is abundantly clear in the months since the Arab Spring, it is that many in the Middle East and Africa don’t yet understand the full weight of their newfound freedoms. With freedom comes responsibility. And just because you can say something doesn’t mean you should.
I support free speech. I’m a newspaper editor, after all. But I don’t have to agree with what people say and I am free to say as much. To that end, the video that sparked the uproar is disgusting and offensive. Islam, as practiced by devout and reasonable people the world over, bears no likeness to what this video implies.
Muslims should be offended by it. They should also consider the source. The offensive video is no more representative of America than the extremists who co-opted the video as a means to incite violence represent the Arab world.
And the more reasonable in the Arab world must understand that allowing themselves to be dragged into the streets at perceived insults only creates an opening for those looking to capitalize on chaos and turn back the clock on their hard-won freedom.
I was touched by Libyans and Egyptians carrying signs in English disavowing these extremists. It was an important reminder in a debate that far too often centers on the fringe, that these are decent people who fought for their freedom from tyranny and desperately want to avoid seeing their countries overthrow one dictator only to make room for another.
Supporting these people — supporting their right to speak, their right to worship and, yes, their right to disagree with us — is as American as it gets. Just as we must defend the right for someone to make dumb and offensive videos, we should stand with Muslims who want to live in a free and democratic society.
Recognizing their value and respecting our differences will foster dialogue and bring everyone closer together. Far from apologizing for American values, the diplomats in Egypt were faithfully upholding them. That they exemplified such tolerance and civility under such difficult circumstances should be celebrated, not criticized.
If Mitt Romney can’t see that, he shouldn’t be running for president. And if he did recognize this and criticized it anyway, it’s a particularly craven way to try to win the job.