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Limited power of US president

Published Sep 22, 2012 03:03am


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HOW President Obama must wish he had the powers rampaging rioters think him to possess.

As thousands demand that he hang the producer of the film Innocence of the Muslims, and enact laws to prevent others from carrying out similar acts of blasphemy, the US government is actually quite impotent in the matter.

Despite being the most powerful man on the planet, in reality the president of America’s powers to act domestically are very limited.

In this case, the First Amendment to the US constitution specifically guarantees the freedom of speech to all American citizens. To enact a law limiting this fundamental right, the amendment would have to be altered, and for that, Obama needs a far bigger Democratic majority in the federal and state legislatures than he enjoys.

The architects of the US constitution deliberately made it very difficult to push through changes. For instance, to alter or abrogate the First Amendment, two-thirds of both the US Senate and the House of Representatives would have to approve the changes.

These would then be referred to all 50 state legislatures, and three-fourths of them would need to agree. In theory, there is another, more tortuous method which originates with at least two-thirds of the states and then requires three-fourths of Congress to agree.

Considering the epic legislative battle Obama had to fight to push through his modest healthcare reforms that required no constitutional changes, it is clear that with the current level of polarisation, the First Amendment cannot be touched. So how can Obama, or any future American leader, ensure that we do not have yet another episode of the kind unleashed by the blasphemous film?

An indication of the limits to Obama’s powers lies in the fact that Google, the owner of the video website YouTube, where clips from the film first appeared, has refused the government’s request to take down the offensive footage. As an explanation, Google has referred the White House to its website laying down what is permissible on the site.

To a layman, it seems that the guidelines suggest that YouTube will not permit hate speech. But the site also says: “We encourage free speech and defend everyone’s right to express unpopular points of view.”

Different societies establish their own limits on free speech. For example, in Germany and Austria, Holocaust denial is a criminal offence — though it isn’t in the US. In the UK, the government can block the press from publishing material deemed to be sensitive. Courts can issue injunctions to protect privacy.

Protesters around the Muslim world have been demanding that the UN enact a law to prevent blasphemy. For years, Saudi Arabia and other Muslim countries have been making a similar demand. They have not got any support from non-Muslim states that fear an encroachment on their own free speech traditions.

During a discussion on Innocence of the Muslims two popular TV anchors on a local channel agreed that Muslims, being emotional, had to demonstrate their anger. One suggested that the film was a deliberate provocation designed to show Muslims as barbarians who poured into the streets when their cage was rattled. “Negative image-building” were his words. Both insisted that this was in line with anti-Muslim vilification taking place in the West.

Neither said a word about the limits the First Amendment places on the US government. I suspect much the same message is being pumped out by the media across the Muslim world: no balance, research or attempt at objectivity.

Nor did our TV anchors appear to report the fact that the cast and the technicians of the offensive film were duped by the director/producer Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, about the subject of the project. Apparently, the sound was dubbed in later, keeping the cast in the dark.

But Nakoula isn’t the only Islamophobic nut in the US; while researching my book Fatal Faultlines, I spent a lot of time looking at extremist websites. For every jihadi site, there’s a right-wing, hate-filled one. Both sides spew venom at each other and seem completely disconnected from reason and reality.

So while Innocence of the Muslims is currently causing outrage, I have little doubt that there’s lots of similarly odious material out there. This film has become a sensation only because of the Muslim reaction: had parts of it not been aired by an Egyptian TV channel, I have little doubt it would have sunk into the obscurity it so richly deserves.

A fundamental difference between Western and Muslim perceptions is the fact that most Muslims belong to states that are, or until recently were, authoritarian. They just cannot believe that an American president cannot issue orders to lock somebody up when he wants to. In their experience, rulers can do anything they feel like to their citizens.

This is not to overstate the rights of Muslim immigrants in the West in these post-9/11 days, when their civil liberties are increasingly at risk. But by reacting in the way Muslims have from Tunis to Indonesia, they are further weakening their co-religionists who have chosen to move to the West.

It is also true that over the years, the image of Muslims has been portrayed in an unflattering light in the West. Hollywood routinely shows Arabs as sadistic villains in a way it would not dare to do with, say, Jews. This stereotyping has been etched into the consciousness of an entire generation of Americans and Europeans.

In a sense, each side feeds off the hostility of the other. The Internet serves as a vast echo chamber that amplifies this anger. And while Nakoula spent some money on his absurd film, it is easy to Photoshop images without having to spend a penny. Will Muslims pour into the streets to burn US consulates each time somebody posts a provocative image or video?

The writer is the author of Fatal Faultlines: Pakistan, Islam and the West.


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The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (20) Closed

Isadora Sep 22, 2012 09:43pm
In Ameica, land of the lawsuit, we cannot sue our government. There would be so may the country would come to a standstill. This is all very complicated, but Mr. Obama cannot remove the miserable, insulting little film. We have rights in this country. That's why we don't have missing people who somehow have just disappeared. I'm sorry for the insult to you from some idiot, but some of us look across the ocean and wonder why so many times Muslim allow themselves to be used. Extremists want you to jump up and down, burn and kill. They want to repress. In my opinion that is their goal and they use the people in Pakistan, etc. to reach this goal. Remember what happened in Afghanistan until the U.S. got the Stingers to the 'Mujahadeen?' Those Stingers helped in Afghanistan's war with the Soviets who were slaughtering them. The U.S. wanted to help and they did help, but as it says in "Charlie Wilson's War," we f..... up the end game." Mr. Obama absolutely cannot stop that disgusting film. I'm sorry. I'm Catholic. Coming soon. The Crucifix in a vial of urine. That happens a lot. There's nothing we can do to stop it - except maybe just ignore it, which is the wise and adult thing to do. BTW, why issn't killing Christians considered a disrespectful thing to do or an insult? Carollane US When is Pakistan going to be as beautiful as it is?
Naseer Sep 22, 2012 02:30pm
Sadly, Muslim's reaction is exactly as the film producer would have expected or wanted. start burning your own home and killing and looting your own people.
Vikram Sep 22, 2012 09:51am
Very well written article, sir... bravo!
MKB Sep 22, 2012 12:11pm
You are right. So many offended, sarcastic material you will find against other religions by the Islamic group in the internet but the reaction is "0". Than why Muslims are so upset on the Film?
abhi Sep 22, 2012 05:45pm
And while Nakoula spent some money on his absurd film, it is easy to Photoshop images without having to spend a penny. Will Muslims pour into the streets to burn US consulates each time somebody posts a provocative image or video? you have recent example of portests in India where photoshopped images were used to provok muslims. I think lack of education and irrational thinking is root cause.
Shayo Sep 23, 2012 12:00am
Your articles are always well balanced and to the point, Thank you.
P N Eswaran Sep 22, 2012 03:54pm
...And rightly so.
Karachi Wala Sep 22, 2012 05:58pm
Good analysis. I believe for far too long the west and Muslim world both have been underestimating each other rather dangerously. Both need to understand the insensitivities and non thoughtfulness can not go on forever. If it went on unchecked, I am afraid it will have devastating consequences for the whole world. I believe, the onus is on the West, as they have much more to loose.
Bakhtawer Bilal Sep 22, 2012 02:13pm
All this reaction was due to the short film. When are we going to come out in the street against the cartoons in the French magazine, Charlie Hebdo.
Ummer Khan Sep 22, 2012 02:06pm
"Will Muslims pour into the streets to burn US consulates each time somebody posts a provocative image or video?" Food for thought!
Muhammad Alvi Sep 22, 2012 01:58pm
The article is well-written and informative. I hope that the readers will benefit from the realities of life expressed in this article. I believe that, if the Muslims were not so sensitive to this kind of material, this video may not have been produced. Somebody aimed at some results, and evidently achieved them.
greatORsmall Sep 22, 2012 01:39pm
"I so strongly believe that the great religions of the world are stronger than any insults. They have withstood offense for centuries," U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. So you know which religion are great ans which is not.
Yasir Sep 22, 2012 12:26pm
I do agree that rulers in west have unlimited powers.....however I do not believe that this materal cannot be removed from circulation with executive authority. Does patriot act ring a bell? It's not about whether Obama cannot doit it's really that he does not want to do it.
Daud Sep 22, 2012 11:48am
Thank you.
Zen Sep 22, 2012 04:36pm
The patriot act did not amend the Constitution. It could have infringed on the 4th amendment but that is debatable. Any move to ban any movie directly infringes on the 1st amendment. No way Obama can do it.
Naseer Sep 22, 2012 02:29pm
Don't forget its an election year, in fact less than two months to go for election. Any action by Obama will make him look weak and give fuel to his opponents.
lancersboy Sep 23, 2012 01:18am
Good defence on behalf of President Obama,and future presidents of the US,thanks and keep it up.
Tariq Sep 22, 2012 07:43am
Can you give us specific examples where Hollywood has portrayed Arabs negatively. In my opinion, Hollywood goes out of its way to not offend Arab and Muslim sensibilities. 99% of bad guys in Hollywood films are white European types.
Tarun Sep 22, 2012 04:27pm
West is not Islamic land and they follow their rules.If you don't like an offensive piece of art then don't watch it
Dil Sep 22, 2012 06:33pm
Thank heavens for the US Constitution...that is why it is such great nation. No president would ever try to change the First Ammendment ever, not because it is so difficult, but because it is what sets America apart from rest of the world.