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Americans treasure freedom of speech

I suspect it's sometimes hard for Americans to understand what happens in the Middle East.

Radical Muslims storm U.S. embassies, purportedly protesting an obscure video posted on YouTube that harshly ridicules the Prophet Muhammad.

It's understandable that the devout of any faith would be angered by such heresy, but enlightened individuals who have long-since accepted modernity are rational enough to distinguish between an official policy and a ham-handed attempt by some kooks.

Americans hardly give such idiocy a second thought.

The Founding Fathers had the wisdom to make the very first addition to the Constitution a protection for unpopular ideas.

James Madison reasoned that even speech that creates "a contempt, a disrepute or hatred (of the government) among people" should be tolerated, according to the Heritage Guide to the Constitution.

The First Amendment applies only to the government, severely limiting its ability to restrict speech among the citizens. However, over time the concept of free speech has become deeply ingrained in American culture.

How often have you heard, "I don't agree with what you said, but I'll defend your right to say it," or "everyone is entitled to their opinion."

We have a casual acceptance of differing views - despite what you see on cable TV and hear on talk radio - and we've had over 230 years to develop thick skins. We know from years of experience that the freewheeling marketplace of ideas is the best venue for sorting the wheat from the chaff.

As we have witnessed this week, no such tolerance exists in parts of the world where Muslims extremists have been whipped into a frenzy by radical clerics using the video clip.

It's possible that the video-inspired protests in Libya were actually a cover for a planned attack that left U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans dead.

In Cairo, an angry mob stormed the embassy grounds, ripped down the American flag, and put up their own flag that read, "There is no god but God, and Muhammad is his prophet."

Prudent adherents to other faiths might counter, "We'll have to agree to disagree."

Ironically, it's the American and western world view that allows us to accept divergent opinions that further inflame Muslim radicals.

Lawrence Wright, writing in The Looming Tower, said "modern values - secularism, rationality, democracy, subjectivity, individualism, mixing of the sexes, tolerance, materialism" are viewed by some in the Muslim world as completely incompatible with Islam.

The idea of murder in the name of God is nearly incomprehensible to modern societies, yet radical Muslims use their religion as justification for "holy wars" against enemies.

In messages to his followers Osama bin Laden frequently called Westerners "the crusaders," harkening back to religious wars of the 11th, 12th and 13th centuries.

Who knows where all this leads? The great ongoing conflict between the West and radical Islam has been described as a clash of civilizations.

However, that's only half true, since one side rejects the freedom and open-mindedness valued by civilized societies.

Kercheval is host of TalkLine, broadcast by the MetroNews Statewide Radio Network from 10 a.m. to noon Monday through Friday. The show can be heard locally on WCHS 580 AM.



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