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U.S. freedom a tough sell to Muslims
Media messages cross ‘red line’
Question of the Day
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — In U.S.-funded ads running on Pakistani TV, subtitled clips show President 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 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 crosses the line into threats or intimidation — they are mostly lost in the outrage that this week included a peaceful march in Nigeria and Iran's threat 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 the Gaza Strip, preacher Sheik Hisham Akram said tolerance is the goal, but the "red line" is crossed with "anyone who insults our religion."
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — now in New York for the annual opening of the U.N. 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 Mr. Obama, the spots include Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's repeated comment 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 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."
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