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Limited power of US president

September 22, 2012

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.

irfan.husain@gmail.com