Separate statements made Thursday by Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton revealed the nub of the issue that has sparked anti-U.S. protests in many Muslim countries—the incompatibility between shari’a and the First Amendment.
“The Islamic sanctities and prophet Mohamed is a red line for all Muslims,” Egypt’s state information service cited Morsi as saying in a speech on state television.
“We do not accept and we consider an enemy anyone who assaults our prophet through words or deeds,” he said, according to Al-Masry al-Youm. “I represent all the Egyptian people, I deprecate and I stand against whoever tries to abuse or exercise abuse of any kind against our prophet or any of the Islamic holy sites.”
At the State Department, speaking alongside her Moroccan counterpart, Clinton said, “our country does have a long tradition of free expression which is enshrined in our Constitution and our law, and we do not stop individual citizens from expressing their views no matter how distasteful they may be.
“There are, of course, different views around the world about the outer limits of free speech and free expression, but there should be no debate about the simple proposition that violence in response to speech is not acceptable,” she added.
Clinton balanced her remarks with strong condemnation of the Mohammed movie clip at the center of the controversy, while Morsi balanced his with condemnation of any action going beyond peaceful protests at U.S. diplomatic missions.
But their respective words underlined the deeper and enduring clash between a constitutional guarantee of freedom of expression and the requirement inshari’a that makes “blasphemy” a punishable offense.
In some countries where shari’a holds sway, blasphemy against Mohammed is punishable by death, usually based on the Qur’anic injunction that “those who wage war against Allah and His Messenger” should be killed, crucified, lose their limbs or be exiled (Qur’an 5:33).
Although compliance and enforcement vary, the constitutions of at least 18 countries include phrases such as shari’a forming “the basis for,” “the principal source of” or “the main source of” legislation—Afghanistan, Bahrain, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Libya, Malaysia, Maldives, Mauritania, Oman, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, United Arab Emirates and Yemen.
In Afghanistan, for example, the latest State Department report on international religious freedom notes, “An Islamic judge may impose a death sentence for blasphemy, if committed by a male over age 18 or a female over age 16 of sound mind. Similar to apostates, those accused of blasphemy are given three days to recant or face death.”