The embassy riots that occurred on the eleventh anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks quickly spilled over into American politics, spurring more controversy on the campaign trail. Riots were staged in many Middle Eastern countries in response to a video released online called “Innocence of Muslims,” which depicted the prophet Muhammed as a murderer and fornicator.
The US embassy in Cairo released a statement responding to rising tensions from the video that “condemns the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims.” The embassy also calls for “respect for religious beliefs… a cornerstone of American democracy.” The embassy ended the statement by claiming that they “firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others.”
Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney called the embassy statement “akin to an apology” and said that it “clearly sent mixed messages.” He also called it “disgraceful” that the Obama administration’s first response was to “sympathize with those who waged the attacks.”
Romney’s statement was released after the Libyan embassy attack that lead to the death of four American officials. Based on the nature of his response, questions have been raised as to whether Romney was aware that the Cairo embassy’s statement was released prior to the attack in Libya, or if he was considering that statement a response to the Libya attack as well.
The Obama administration criticized Romney for turning the riots into a campaign issue. “We are shocked that, at a time when the United States of America is confronting the tragic death of one of our diplomatic officers in Libya, Gov. Romney would choose to launch a political attack,” said Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt. President Obama said that he would “let the American people be the judge” of whether Romney’s statement was “irresponsible.”
The president eventually released the following statement to clarify his position on the importance of freedom of speech: “I do have to say that, more broadly, we believe in the First Amendment. It is one of the hallmarks of our Constitution that I am sworn to uphold, so we’re always going to uphold the rights of individuals to speak their minds,” says Obama, “On the other hand, this film is not representative of who we are, and our values, and I think it is important for us to communicate that.”
He also states that regardless of the how people exercise this right, freedom of speech is “never an excuse for violence against Americans,” and he assures that he will pursue those responsible for the embassy attacks.