U.S. Mounting Effort To Counter Limits on Speech Critical of Islam

Worries That Muslim Leaders Use U.N. Resolution To Stifle Dissent

By Marc Perelman

Published October 02, 2008, issue of October 10, 2008.
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The Bush administration, European governments and advocates of freedom of speech are ramping up efforts to counter what they see as a campaign by Muslim countries to suppress speech about religion, especially Islam.

The debate focuses on a United Nations resolution called “Combating Defamation of Religion,” sponsored by the 57-nation Organization of the Islamic Conference. The resolution was adopted by the U.N. General Assembly in 2005 and is up for renewal in the next couple of months. While the resolution stresses the need to fight defamation against all faiths, Islam is the only one explicitly mentioned.

Both the European Union and the United States, which have treaded carefully in recent years to avoid being perceived as anti-Muslim, have come out strongly against this resolution as well as similar efforts in other U.N. bodies.

Although such resolutions are not binding, there is mounting concern in Western countries that Muslim regimes are using a series of high-profile incidents, most notably the outrage provoked by the newspaper publication of caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad in Denmark, to stifle free speech and divert attention from their own repression of religious freedom at home.

“The OIC wants to mainstream the notion that there should be a valid and legal limit to freedom of speech,” said Felice Gaer, director of the American Jewish Committee’s Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights and chair of the bipartisan U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. “But this is turning the human rights paradigm on its head. Individuals have rights, not groups or ideas. This is of the same cloth as the blasphemy laws in several Muslim countries whereby governments get to decide what’s appropriate and intimidate religious minorities.”

While the U.N. resolution is likely to be renewed, given the majority held by developing countries in the 192-member strong General Assembly, American and European officials are trying to persuade some African and Asian countries to switch sides and water down the language.

On September 19, the Bush administration blasted the OIC efforts at the U.N. in the State Department’s 2008 Report on International Religious Freedom. John Hanford, the ambassador at large for religious freedom, was more explicit in remarks he made to reporters upon the release of the report.

“We take issue with efforts by the Organization of the Islamic Conference and its members, like Pakistan and Egypt, in promoting the problematic concept of defamation of religions at the United Nations,” he said. “This flawed concept seeks to weaken the freedoms of religion and expression by restricting the rights of individuals to share their views or criticize religions — in particular, Islam.”

The administration is also weighing whether to introduce a resolution on “freedom of expression.” According to two sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity, it is trying to figure out if it can garner enough votes.

The State Department did not return queries seeking comment.

Ambassador Babacar Ba, the OIC representative to the U.N. in Geneva, said that with regard to freedom of expression, “the OIC, too, acknowledges and supports this right in its entirety. However, it advocates that the right in itself is not absolute and must have certain legitimate limitations.” And he stressed that far from limiting religious freedom, the resolution “on the contrary strives to ensure and protect the rights of all religious minorities, enabling them to lead a life of respect and enjoy their economic and social rights in an environment free of coercion, fear and threat.” 

Several observers noted that one unacknowledged motivation behind the OIC campaign was the willingness by Muslim governments to show their citizens — especially the most radical among them — that they are actively countering the criticism of Islam’s violent bent that has become common in Western countries.

“They need to show their radicals that they are not standing pat but standing up to the West,” said a source who has had conversations with Muslim officials over the issue but declined to be identified.

In addition to the Bush administration’s efforts, a new “coalition to defend free speech” was launched October 2 in Washington. It comprises the American Jewish Congress and the International Quranic Center; conservative groups such as Freedom House, American Values, the Becket Fund and The Rutherford Institute, and such liberal figures as former Clinton administration senior official Morton Halperin and prominent lawyer Floyd Abrams, who will be the coalition’s honorary chair.

“We want to raise public awareness and have an impact at home and abroad,” Abrams told the Forward. “Will this persuade the Muslim world? No. But it’s important for organizations to speak out, for instance, vis-à-vis the new U.S. administration.”

Promoters of the coalition are eager to avoid being branded as part of a Jewish and/or neoconservative effort to attack Muslims, especially given the central role the AJCongress played in cobbling together the coalition over the past year.

Several free speech advocacy groups and leading liberal-leaning human rights groups, such as the American Civil Liberties Union and Human Rights Watch, in fact have declined to join the coalition. “We have lots of trouble getting liberal groups who care a lot about free speech on board,” Abrams admitted. But he added that the promoters are still hopeful that some will join the effort, and that Jewish groups will do so as well, though none has yet been asked to do so.

Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, said the decision was not a political one.

“We’re fully on board with respect to the issue, but we rarely join coalitions of these kinds when the plan is to issue joint statements, since we find that we spend endless time editing and negotiating text without any commensurate reward,” he told the Forward. 

The issue of free speech and Islam gained prominence in the late 1980s when Iran issued a religious edict calling for the slaying of British author Salman Rushdie for what was perceived to be his insulting depiction of the Prophet Muhammad in his novel “The Satanic Verses.” The matter became a major public debate once again after the September 11 attacks, with incidents such as the Danish cartoon episode, the murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh and a series of libel lawsuits brought by Muslim plaintiffs against Western authors of books on Islam and terrorism. Late last month, the home office of a British publisher who is planning to produce a book about the early life of one of the Prophet Muhammad’s wives was set on fire. Three suspects were arrested on suspicion of preparing a terrorist attack.

But while those issues have grabbed much of the attention, most of the crucial debates have taken place in U.N. parleys in recent years.

The first resolution on the issue was introduced by the OIC in 1999 at the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, under the title “Defamation of Islam.” It was adopted under the title “Defamation of Religion.” After the 9/11 attacks, it took the title “Combatting the Defamation of Religions,” and since then, new resolutions have been introduced at its successor body, the Human Rights Council, and in the General Assembly, every year since 2005.

The measure took on new urgency after the Prophet Muhammad cartoons controversy. Earlier this year, the Human Rights Council passed a resolution asking the U.N. Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism to monitor the issue.

The resolution was opposed by Canada and the European Union. The issue is somewhat thorny for several E.U. members who have Holocaust-denial laws on the books. Muslim countries have referred to such legislation to justify the need for legal protection of Muslims against what they deem insulting attitudes and words. But the OIC’s willingness to equate defamation of religion with racism as well as the Danish cartoon flap prompted the Europeans to come closer to America’s position, a staunch defense of free speech based on the First Amendment.

“There is an anti-Muslim profiling issue in the West, and it needs to be addressed,” said Sybil Sanchez, director of U.N. affairs with B’nai B’rith International. “But the problem of the OIC effort is that if you talk about terrorism, they say it’s Islamophobia and you should be held liable.”

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