Islamists step up pressure for U.S. media curbs, Obama equivocates

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
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Arab governments are stepping up their demands for regulation of American media to ensure Islam gets more favorable coverage in the United States, while President Barack Obama used his weekend message to again condemn criticism of Islam and to reassure Americans worried war in the Arab region.

Egypt’s Prime Minister Hisham Qandil said Sept. 15 that he expected changes in U.S. law and media practice following the release of a 14-minute anti-Islam YouTube video and a week of ongoing unrest in the Middle East.

The violence has included numerous protests, riots and deadly attacks on U.S. and European facilities since Sept. 11, all of which have damaged Obama’s election-trail claims to foreign policy success.

The United States should “take the necessary measures to ensure insulting billions of people – one and a half billion people – and their beliefs does not happen, and people pay for what they do, and at the same time make sure that the reflections of the true Egyptian and Muslims is well [represented] in Western media,” Qandil added, according to the the English-language site of Egypt’s main newspaper, Al Ahram.

But Qandil’s statement also hinted at more violence if the Islamists’ demands were not met.

“I think we need to work out something around this because we cannot wait and see this happen again,” Qandil said.

And on Friday, a top leader of the multinational Cairo-based Muslim Brotherhood party used Western terms to call for greater restrictions on Western media.

“Today’s world is a global village; nations are closer than ever before,” said Khairant El-Shater, the deputy leader of the party, whose members include Qandil, and control Egypt’s government. “In such a world, respect for values and figures — religious or otherwise — that nations hold dear is a necessary requirement to build sustainable, mutually beneficial relationships.”

“Despite our resentment of the continued appearance of productions like the anti-Muslim film that led to the current violence, we do not hold the American government or its citizens responsible for acts of the few that abuse the laws protecting freedom of expression,” he said.

His language echoed the Sept. 11 message from the U.S. embassy in Cairo, which tried to fend off violent protesters by declaring that “respect for religious beliefs is a cornerstone of American democracy [and] we firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others.”

In Saudi Arabia, the government’s senior religious leader “called on the international community to take steps to criminalize any act of abusing great prophets and messengers such as Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad (peace be upon them),” according to a report in the government-controlled English-language paper Arab News.

The competing demands for regulation of American media reflect the political competition between the rival Islamist powers, including the Cairo-based Muslim Brotherhood and the wealthy Saudi government.

The competition is spurred by strident demands from smaller groups, including the Egyptian Al-Nour party — which won roughly 28 percent of the vote in Egypt’s extended 2011 and 2012 elections — and various overlapping jihad groups, such as al-Qaida and Egypt’s Islamic Group and Islamic Jihad.

Regional experts and some Arabs commentators say the upsurge in the Middle East has been caused by populist Arab political movements competing to be seen as pro-Islam and anti-American to Arab voters, who are eager to blame America for their poverty, unemployment, corruption and poor education. Roughly two-thirds of Egyptians oppose Obama’s reelection, according to a recent Pew survey.

The leaders’ condemnation of speech critical of Islam came a day after the White House asked YouTube to consider blocking the online video. Despite public pressure from the president, Google and its subsidiary YouTube on Friday declined to remove the film.

Meanwhile, federal police authorities detained the movie’s producer, Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, an Egyptian immigrant with criminal record. Early Saturday, California police police picked up Nakoula during a midnight visit and drove him to a meeting with federal probation officials, according to The Los Angeles Times.

Nakoula is an Egyptian Copt. That is a Christian community which existed for hundreds of years before Islamic armies captured Egypt in 641. Copts are now only 10 percent of Egypt’s population, and many are trying to flee persecution from Egyptian Islamists.

In his weekend speech, Obama did not try to counter Islamists’ increased calls for restrictions on U.S. speech. Instead, he again suggested that the YouTube video was responsible for the recent violence.

“I have made it clear that the United States has a profound respect for people of all faiths… we reject the denigration of any religion – including Islam,” Obama said.

The president has repeatedly argued that his policies have helped reduce conflict in Muslim countries, and campaign officials have stepped up efforts to portray the president as decisive and effective leader on the world stage.

Obama has “completely taken the foreign policy and national security argument away” from Republicans, Retired Gen. Wesley Clark told ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday.

“He reinforced in Afghanistan, he got us responsibly out of Iraq. We took Osama bin Laden [and] he’s been firm, he’s been visionary… tough [and] decisive,” Clark said.

“President Obama picked up the phone and talked to [Egyptian President Mohamed] Morsi,” Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said on the same show. “As soon as he did that, the security provided to our personnel and our embassies dramatically increased.”

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Neil Munro