That's an unexpected headline, but true just the same. Seems that the President likes the international attitude toward racism no better than his predecessor did, especially when it comes to any linkage of Zionism with racism. Obama and Secretary Clinton add a new wrinkle by deploring the conference's concern with so-called incitement to religious hatred. This is seen as an attempt by Muslims to curtail freedom of speech worldwide. You might think an international conference would be the place to make your case against such notions, but the Americans probably expect to be outvoted, so they'd rather not dignify the affair with their presence. This has irked the Congressional Black Caucus, which naturally wants this country in the middle of any global effort against racism. But the U.S. government has historically reserved the right to define racism as it pleases, regardless of any international consensus. American leaders were offended when the UN declared Zionism a form of racism in 1975, and to an extent you can understand the complaint. For many people Zionism is going to mean first and foremost the national aspirations of Jewish people. If that's racist, you might say, than so is Kurdish or Basque nationalism. The problem with any such equation, of course, is that those groups would not have to infiltrate any territory and displace a resident population to realize their national ambitions, while that was inevitably necessary for a dispersed people. There was no way Zionism was ever going to make everyone happy, and Arabs have a right to see racism in the idea that their interests have to take second place to other people's in a land that had been theirs for more than a thousand years. On the other hand, it is arguably racist, depending on the extent to which you define Judaism racially, to deny Jewish people the right to a national home, even though no one to my knowledge accuses the Spaniards of "racism" against the Basque people, nor the Iraqis or the Turks of "racism" against the Kurds. As you see, there's no easy resolution of the matter, which I suppose is why we have international conferences to talk it over. But because we won't get our way, we will ignore the event as if it isn't happening.
On the other matter I can understand American defensiveness. Christian lamentation notwithstanding, it is virtually a sacred American right to criticize religious beliefs and practices. We can't accept the premise that religion can be so deeply embedded in anyone's personal identity that criticism of it is an unendurable insult. Nor can we believe that criticizing religion is an "incitement" to any kind of bad behavior. Christians may feel persecuted sometimes, but there can't be many here who'd say that even "militant atheist" writings have led to violence or other repressive measures against them. Again, an international conference would seem to be the occasion to clarify the American position and attempt to persuade the rest of the world. But we probably fear a consensus of dictators and other authoritarians would outvote us on any question, so again we close our eyes, plug our ears and go "na na na" as the conference goes on.
I can't really endorse the American position because it seems undemocratic, on the level of nations, to refuse to accept a global consensus simply because it isn't in perfect agreement with our own beliefs, and it seems worse to refuse even to engage the rest of the world in defense of those beliefs. If there is to be a truly global civilization, it almost certainly will not be an enlarged reproduction of the United States. Americans may have to accommodate and compromise, just like every other nationality and culture. If Muslims want the rest of the world to renounce certain prerogatives, they had better do some renouncing of their own. Inevitably they will if the world survives. But if we expect them to learn to compromise, we should teach by example. Instead we're showing them how to sulk until everyone else capitulates. There has to be a better approach, but Obama and Clinton haven't figured it out yet.