Hillary Clinton adopts Romney free speech policy

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
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Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Thursday championed the United States’ First Amendment, saying the government doesn’t stop Americans from debating Islam.

The policy shift is a tacit validation of Mitt Romney’s criticism of administration policy, but buttresses President Barack Obama’s controversial Arab outreach policy, which has been damaged by televised waves of Islamist attacks and the rise of Islamist political parties.

“Our country does have a long tradition of free expression, which is enshrined in our Constitution and in our law,” she said during a long-planned meeting with leaders from Morocco, a Muslim country concurrently governed by a Western-oriented king and an elected Islamist government.

“We do not stop individual citizens from expressing their views no matter how distasteful they may be,” she said, in reference to complaints by Islamists about a low-budget video that uses orthodox Islamic texts and current events to satirize Islam and Islam’s reputed prophet, Muhammad.

Clinton’s high-profile defense of the First Amendment is a turnaround for the administration, which has repeatedly slammed criticism of Islam as anti-American. (WATCH: The anti-Muhammad movie cited as cause of violence)

The shift allows the administration to shake off demands by Islamists — including the new president of Egypt — for the forcible suppression of U.S. free speech, while also helping it demand that Islamist governments shield U.S embassies and citizens.

Islamists believe societies, government and individuals should be governed by the demands of Islamic texts, such as the Quran. Those texts bar criticism of Islam, penalize non-Muslims and urge hostility against non-Islamic governments.

Clinton’s comments came as Islamists cited the video as a pretext to invade and damage portions of the U.S. embassy in Yemen, and to continue protests around the embassy in Cairo. On Sept. 11, other Islamists killed the U.S. ambassador and three aides on the eleventh anniversary of the 9/11 atrocity by al-Qaida’s Islamist recruits

The embassy attacks have upended Obama’s Arab strategy, which called for the support of democratically elected governments. (SEE ALSO: Protesters storm U.S. embassy in Yemen)

Muslims, however, have mostly voted for radical Islamist governments, wrecking Obama’s 2009 plans for a “New Beginning” in U.S.-Arab relations.

“I have come here to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world… based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive, and need not be in competition” Obama declared in his June 2009 speech announcing the new policy. “Instead, they overlap, and share common principles – principles of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings,” Obama claimed.

The policy turnaround came Sept. 12, following the unexpected embassy attacks and sharp criticism from Romney.

Late on Sept. 11, Romney said the administration “sympathized” the Islamists who rioted at the Cairo embassy, while claiming they were angered by the 13-minute California-produced video.

Romney’s criticism focused on a statement from the Cairo embassy, which sought to fend off the rioters by claiming that “we firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others.”

In fact, the riot had been planned earlier by supporters of the so-called “Blind Sheikh,” who was given a life sentence after being convicted of terror conspiracy in 1995.

Egypt’s new president, Mohamed Morsi, has also called publicly for the release of the so-called sheikh, Omar Abdel-Rahman.

Obama echoed this statement in a Rose Garden speech early on Sept. 12, saying “since our founding, the U.S. has been a nation that respects all faiths and rejects all effort to denigrate the religious beliefs of others.”

However, Obama reversed his position that afternoon, telling a CBS reporter that “we believe in the First Amendment… [which] is one of the hallmarks of our Constitution that I’m sworn to uphold, and so we are always going to uphold the rights for individuals to speak their mind.”

In her Sept. 13 statement to likely audiences in the Arab world, Clinton balanced her defense of the First Amendment by criticizing the crude satire, which reprises conventional Islamic stories about Muhammad’s life, including his killing of an old poetess, his marriage to his adopted son’s wife, his polygamy, and his endorsement of slavery, raids and killings.

“I know it is hard for some people to understand why the United States cannot or does not just prevent these kinds of reprehensible videos from ever seeing the light of day,” said Clinton, who is a progressive feminist.

“Let me state very clearly — and I hope it is obvious — that the United States government had absolutely nothing to do with this video,” she said. “We absolutely reject its content and message. America’s commitment to religious tolerance goes back to the very beginning of our nation.”

The administration’s two-sided stance matches the approach taken by George W. Bush, whose deputies also championed the First Amendment while criticizing U.S. speech that angered some Muslims.

In 2006, for example, some Muslim imams spurred deadly riots while trying to intimidate a Danish newspaper — and the nation’s news industry — after it published satirical cartoons about Islam.

“We vigorously defend the right of individuals to express points of view,” said Bush’s State Department spokesman, Sean McCormack, who also said, “we find [the cartoons] offensive, and we certainly understand why Muslims would find these images offensive.”

However, the Islamists’ intimidation was largely successful. Few publications in Denmark or outside republished the satirical cartoons, and the Danish government pressured media outlets to apologize, following threats of an Arab economic boycott of Danish products.

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Neil Munro