Washington — Violent unrest over recent weeks has highlighted the need for an honest dialogue as well as the need for people to choose between the forces that drive them apart on the one hand, and their common hopes for greater opportunity and security on the other, President Obama told the United Nations General Assembly.
Speaking in New York September 25, Obama thanked those around the world who have helped to secure U.S. diplomatic facilities and who have called for calm. The violence and hateful speech sparked by an anti-Islamic film do not represent the views of the overwhelming majority of Muslims “any more than the views of the people who produced this video represent those of Americans,” he said.
The president described the video as “crude and disgusting” and said that its message “must be rejected by all who respect our common humanity.” As a country with its own Muslim community, “we understand why people take offense to this video because millions of our citizens are among them,” he said.
But in the aftermath of violence directed at American and other Western targets, he said, “there are no words that excuse the killing of innocents. There is no video that justifies an attack on an embassy. There is no slander that provides an excuse for people to burn a restaurant in Lebanon, or destroy a school in Tunis, or cause death and destruction in Pakistan.”
Responding violently to those who engage in hateful speech only allows them to create chaos. With modern technology and the ease of uploading videos, photos and other materials to share online with the world, a violent response empowers “the worst of us,” he said.
As the U.S president, “I accept that people are going to call me awful things every day, and I will always defend their right to do so,” he said.
“In 2012, at a time when anyone with a cell phone can spread offensive views around the world with the click of a button, the notion that we can control the flow of information is obsolete. The question, then, is how do we respond. And on this we must agree: There is no speech that justifies mindless violence,” Obama said.
The best way to combat hateful speech is not by repression or restriction, which can quickly become a tool to silence critics and oppress minorities. “The strongest weapon … is more speech — the voices of tolerance that rally against bigotry and blasphemy, and lift up the values of understanding and mutual respect,” he said.
The president quoted South African leader and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Nelson Mandela, saying, “To be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”
Every country has people who find the religious beliefs of others to be threatening, Obama said, but “those who love freedom for themselves must ask themselves how much they are willing to tolerate freedom for others.”
In hard economic times, he said, it is tempting to rally people around perceived enemies at home and abroad instead of focusing on the hard and painstaking work of reform.
“That brand of politics — one that pits East against West, South against North, Muslims against Christians, Hindus, and Jews — cannot deliver the promise of freedom,” he said. Instead it only offers false hope, and does nothing to educate a child, feed people or create jobs.
Commenting on the protests that have brought political change to Arab countries, Obama noted that “we have seen largely peaceful protests bring more change to Muslim-majority countries than a decade of violence.”
Extremists “understand this,” and “because they have nothing to offer to improve the lives of people, violence is their only way to stay relevant. They do not build, they only destroy,” Obama said.
Around the world, “people are making their voices heard, insisting on their innate dignity and the right to determine their future,” he said.
Despite the challenges of democratic transition, Obama said he remains convinced that “ultimately government of the people, by the people and for the people is more likely to bring about the stability, prosperity and individual opportunity that serve as a basis for peace in our world.”