American Foreign Service Assn opposes offending “religious feelings”
posted at 7:33 am on September 14, 2012 by Libby Sternberg
The American Foreign Service Association has weighed in on the awful events in Benghazi, where an ambassador and several staff members were killed during anti-American violence. The violence was supposedly triggered by the release of a controversial film critical of Muslims and Mohammed, although it occurred on the anniversary of the terrorist attacks of September 11. Here’s AFSA’s statement (emphasis is mine):
AFSA Statement on the Tragic Deaths of American Diplomatic Personnel in Libya
We are deeply saddened and mourn the tragic loss of Ambassador Chris Stevens, Foreign Service Information Management Specialist Sean Smith, and their colleagues in the outrageous and cowardly attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya. We extend our heartfelt condolences and sympathy to the families and loved ones of those killed. Their service and example are an inspiration to us all.
The violent attack on U.S. diplomatic compounds once again underscores the dangers that American diplomats face in service to our country.
AFSA deplores attacks and use of violence against diplomats and diplomatic missions. We oppose intentional efforts to offend religious feelings. We firmly believe in diplomacy and commitment to sustained dialogue to resolve differences of whatever sort and for better mutual understanding among peoples of differing faiths, ideologies and cultures.
AFSA is the professional association of American foreign service employees, representing active and retired workers from the U.S. Department of State. While it’s certainly understandable that the beginning of their statement focuses on their sadness and condolences for the loss of colleagues, it isn’t until sentence five of the seven-sentence declaration that they get around to condemning the use of violence. And even then, they follow this with their opposition to “efforts to offend religious feelings.” (Note: an earlier version of the statement on AFSA’s website included “strong” opposition to “any and all intentional efforts to offend and hurt the religious feelings of anyone, anywhere.”)
If AFSA opposes efforts to hurt anyone’s religious feelings, surely they must have been lobbying the NEA to rescind artist Andres Serrano’s grants after he photographed a crucifix in urine in 1987. Or issuing statements against the anti-Jewish art exhibit in Iran in 2006. Or the mocking Book of Mormon musical on Broadway. Or the recent awarding of the Venice Film Festival Prize to a film about a devout Catholic woman who uses a crucifix to pleasure herself.
But, of course, AFSA hasn’t raised a ruckus about these religiously offensive works of “art.” AFSA’s commitment to religious sensibilities has a whiff of insincerity to it, due to its lack of specificity. AFSA seems to be opposed to offending Muslim religious feelings, not all religious feelings (perhaps this is why they modified the statement?). From a purely practical standpoint, it’s easy to understand why: almost any time Islam is treated with the same mockery, lampooning, or jest that other religions in America are, Islamic extremists kill people.
Several American foreign service officers and servicemen were just killed. These people died in service to their country, whose principles include freedom of expression. That’s not just freedom of inoffensive expression. It’s freedom of expression for the gentle and the rude, kind and the cruel, the lofty and the silly. Why is AFSA not making that point, and better yet, explaining why freedom of expression is important, even worth dying for? Those brave Americans’ lives are surely worth a line directed at our adversaries about our core values. Instead, AFSA included a knuckle-rapping aimed at the filmmakers of the controversial (and barely known) anti-Muslim flick that might or might not have been the trigger for the violence.
There is a “teachable moment” in these ghastly events, one you would hope that an American foreign service organization, whose members are tasked with presenting America’s face to the world, would embrace: good men died in service to a country that values free speech.
No matter how offensive the anti-Muslim film in question was, it doesn’t justify the response of the thugs who killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and other staff.
Libby Sternberg is a novelist.