A Change of Guard

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Sunday, 23 September 2012

Freedom of Religion and Expression

By William E. Todd, the U.S. Ambassador to the Kingdom of Cambodia
Thank you very much for all of the positive responses to last week’s column on the U.S. Congress and academic freedom of ideas.  I appreciate all of the discussion that happens on our Facebook page about the weekly column.  Please keep those questions coming to me at AskAMBToddPP@state.gov so we can explore other issues together.

This week, I would like to take the opportunity to address the recent attacks on American embassies and the ongoing protests in response to a highly offensive video that denigrates Islam.  Several of my Cambodian friends have asked me questions about this issue so I believe it is an appropriate point of discussion for this week’s column, particularly as it touches upon freedom of religion and expression.

First of all, Chris Stevens, the U.S. Ambassador to Libya who was killed in the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, was a close friend of mine.  I extend my deepest condolences to his family and the personnel of the U.S. Mission to Libya who lost a great leader.  Chris was an amazing individual and a consummate diplomat, who ultimately sacrificed his life in his efforts to help Libya on the path to democracy.  As an official representative of the United States government and someone who lost a dear friend, I want to be absolutely clear about the issues surrounding the YouTube video and America’s relationship with Islam.

One frequently asked question that I get is, “How could the United States allow such an offensive video to be produced?”  It may be difficult for some people around the world to understand, but the U.S. government does not participate in censorship.  Our country has a long tradition of free expression, which is protected by the law, and the U.S. government does not – and cannot – stop individual citizens from expressing their views.  As a practical matter, blocking the posting of videos online is nearly impossible in today’s technologically advanced world.

However, I would like to clarify that the United States had nothing to do with the production of the film nor does the U.S. government condone the message.  While those who funded and created this movie are exercising their freedom of expression, the United States government and the vast majority of U.S. citizens do not agree with the content.  As Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton stated, the United States is a nation with millions of individuals who practice Islam.  There are also over two thousand mosques throughout the United States, with that number having risen by approximately 75% over the past decade.  U.S. citizens of all faiths absolutely reject the film’s message and its contents.  We find it disgusting and reprehensible.  America has a history of religious tolerance – and respect for religious beliefs – that goes back to our nation’s founding.  We are stronger because we are the home to people of all religions – including millions of Muslims – and we reject the denigration of religion.  Here in Cambodia, the Embassy’s active engagement with the Muslim community is a strong example of the United States’ respect for Islam and other religions.  Respect for other religions is one of our core beliefs, and that will never change.

Another popular question is, “How is the U.S. government reacting to the worldwide public protests of the video?”  Understandably, this offensive video generated anger in the Muslim world to the point of intense, public protests.  Islam is a peace-loving religion, and we absolutely respect any Muslim’s or any person’s right, in fact, to protest – and protest loudly – anything they believe to be offensive or blasphemous.  Freedom of expression and freedom of assembly are core values enshrined in the U.S. Constitution and are highly regarded universal human rights.  The key is that the demonstrations of these freedoms must be peaceful.  We strongly condemn the use of violent protest that defaces property and takes the lives like those of my friend, Chris Stevens, and my three other admirable and brave colleagues, Sean Smith, Tyrone Woods, and Glen A. Doherty.

When protests turn violent, the violence undermines the principal message or cause.  Before a society can return to addressing the substantive matter at hand, it needs to restore order as peacefully and as quickly as possible.  Citizens’ ability to express their dissatisfaction through peaceful demonstrations preserves political stability and maintains a society’s democratic values.

That’s it for the column this week.  Thank you again for being great dialogue partners.  I look forward to receiving more questions at AskAMBToddPP@state.gov.  Please remember to also read my blog at http://blogs.usembassy.gov/todd.

William E. Todd is  U.S. Ambassador to the Kingdom of Cambodia

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