History Repeats itself in Libya… Sort of
On September 11th, The United States Embassy in Cairo issued a statement condemning the attempts of “misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims.” The statement was in response to growing outrage stemming from an anti-Islamic movie produced in America. The movie was recently translated into Arabic and viewed via the internet throughout the Middle East and other Arabic speaking nations.
Although the statement issued by the U.S. Embassy was intended to assuage the offended and deter potentially violent reactions, attacks on American embassies ensued in both Egypt and Libya. Another attack followed on September 13th in Yemen.
The original statement by the U.S. Embassy met criticism from, among others, Mitt Romney. Romney cited the statement as “akin to an apology,” and felt that the statement did not “defend [American] values,” implying that the President did not support the first amendment freedom of speech exercised by the American film maker.
So let’s say Romney is right. Let’s make the inference Romney wants us to make and say that President Obama’s take on the first amendment is that it is not absolute, that it does not extend to those who offend Muslims. Even if this stretcher (as Mark Twain would call it) were accurate, it wouldn’t be the first time America denounced a foundational value in the face of Muslim opposition.
In America’s infancy, the government faced troubled waters, quite literally. American merchant ships were being attacked off the Barbary Coast by Muslim pirates. In order to establish more peaceful relations with the Islamic North African nations (modern day Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco), the American Congress proposed and unanimously ratified the Treaty of Tripoli in 1797.
The controversial legacy of this treaty lies in Article 11:
As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion,—as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility, of Mussulmen,—and as the said States never entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mahometan nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.
The American Congress at the time clearly saw a benefit to denouncing America as a fundamentally Christian nation. The benefit was the safety of American sailors and hostages from hostile, state-sponsored Muslim pirates.
Now, if you are of the opinion that the United States was founded on the Christian religion, this section of the treaty can mean one of two things: 1) you are dead wrong, or 2) the United States was simply trying to ease relations between Americans and Muslims by telling an outright lie. I tend to favor option one, but I certainly wouldn’t put it past an American government to lie in a treaty. (By the way, if Congress did blatantly break the ninth commandment in the treaty, it does not help the argument that American government was founded on the Christian religion.)
Whether or not America was “founded on the Christian religion” can be debated, but the fact that it was founded by imperfect Christians who touted the guiding principles and values found in the Christian Bible is an indisputable truth. Still, the statement in Article 11 is clearly an attempt by the American government to distance itself from any American value derived from Christianity.
This brings us full circle to the statement made in Cairo.
In an effort to protect innocent lives, the American Embassy in Cairo distanced itself from a specific value that Americans hold dear: freedom of speech. Did America revoke the freedom of speech from the hateful individuals whose handiwork incited the violence that resulted in the murder of another American? No. Did America apologize for those hateful individuals’ actions? Yes, but only in an effort to safeguard Americans from the consequences of those idiots’ actions.
Ultimately, what has been revealed through Mitt Romney’s commentary regarding the situation in Libya is the unwavering belief many people have in American exceptionalism. But this is not simply a belief that America is exceptional; it is an arrogant worldview that incorrectly assumes that America can do no wrong and that Americans are always right, no matter who is killed as a result of their actions—even other Americans.