Freedom From Speech


Published November 26, 2008, issue of December 05, 2008.
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The United Nations saw another shred of its tattered dignity stripped away November 24, when a committee of the General Assembly approved what amounts to a direct assault on Western liberal democracy. In an 85-50 vote, with 42 abstaining, the so-called Third Committee adopted a resolution, submitted by a caucus of Islamic nations, to criminalize expressions deemed to be “defamation of religion,” with special concern for Islam. All U.N. member states would be called on to amend their criminal codes accordingly. The measure’s next stop is the General Assembly, where it is expected to win handily, probably in December.

The U.N. is no stranger to assaults on decency and common sense. Indeed, the new ban on religious defamation is essentially a restatement of a measure approved by the General Assembly last year but barely noticed at the time.

What makes this year’s resolution different, and more dangerous, is that it is supposed to move on from the General Assembly to another forum, where it might acquire real teeth: the second World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, scheduled to convene next April in Geneva.

Many legal scholars believe that the decisions of international conferences of this sort can be incorporated into international law, putting them under the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court. Individual nations could not be forced to amend their laws, but they might find Interpol knocking at their doors, serving them extradition requests to hand over their cartoonists and novelists. Stand-up comics and philosophers might find they’re unable to cross international borders for fear of being arrested and remanded for trial in Jordan or Malaysia.

The Geneva conference is planned as a follow-up to the first world conference against racism, which took place in early September 2001 in Durban, South Africa. That meeting did some serious work, but it was memorably upstaged by a parallel gathering of nongovernmental activists, who staged a noisy show of anti-Israel and antisemitic speech-making, rallies and parades, all under U.N. auspices. And, of course, a week later, on September 11, 2001, all hell broke loose.

The years since then have not been kind to the spirit of reconciliation supposedly invoked at Durban. It has been a decade of intense friction between the West and the Muslim world, of invasions and terrorism, of cartoon wars, eavesdropping, beheadings, Guantanamo and intifada. The religious defamation ban is part of an effort by Muslim nations to retake the initiative. The resolution, which is being pushed by the Organization of the Islamic Conference, is seen as winning back some of Islam’s lost stature in world opinion and offering some protection to Muslim minorities in increasingly suspicious Western societies. The idea, it seems, is to reduce Western suspicion of Islam by outlawing criticism.

The Muslim charm campaign also features an escalation of hostility toward Israel. The package of resolutions prepared for debate and adoption in Geneva breaks new ground in diplomatic Israel-bashing. It accuses Israel of crimes against humanity, of practicing “a new kind of apartheid” and — apparently for the first time in a formal document — “a form of genocide.”

It’s a risky game the Islamic countries are playing. They may have overestimated the strength of its automatic majority at the U.N. The resolution on religious defamation, for example, failed to win a majority in the committee this year and passed only by a plurality. That is, a majority of U.N. members refused to support the Islamic nations’ proposal, a rare setback. The 85 votes the ban did secure represent a sharp decline from last year, when the same measure received 108 votes.

Also facing unexpected resistance is the anti-Israel draft language. Efforts are underway to organize a Western boycott of the Geneva conference if the anti-Israel language is not softened. Canada has already announced plans to stay away. On Capitol Hill, Jewish and black representatives are working together to line up support in the administration and in various African capitals to reject the defamation ban. France is flatly threatening to stay home if the anti-Israel language is not changed, and French President Nicolas Sarkozy is said to be reaching out to other European leaders to close ranks.

Surprisingly, Saudi Arabia is leading its own behind-the-scenes effort, with moderate Arab states, to soften the anti-Israel language and prevent a Western boycott, according to several close U.N. watchers. Saudi King Abdullah is said to view the extreme anti-Israel rhetoric as an Iranian ploy to alienate the West and sabotage the conference. Abdullah favors cooperation with the West, and he fears Iran. That’s why he’s offered his own peace plan, convened an inter-religious dialogue and invited Israeli President Shimon Peres to his recent New York tolerance forum. Abdullah can’t boycott Geneva, but he can work quietly within the Islamic bloc to cut out the worst Israel-bashing. But he needs something to show the folks back home that he is defending the faith. Some diplomats speculate that he might accept a ban with fewer teeth.

If Europe, America and their close allies were to skip Geneva en masse, the conference would become a gathering of Third World nations rather than a world forum, and the proceedings would lose their significance. That would hurt sub-Saharan Africa, where the Durban process is cherished as a long-delayed acknowledgement of African suffering under colonialism. The prospect of a boycott, then, puts pressure on the Africans to find a way of softening their Muslim allies’ stance.

No one, however, has more to lose than Europe. European leaders view the Durban process as a form of penance for their role in Africa, and they’re anxious to see progress at Geneva. On the other hand, Europe is home to large and restive Muslim minorities, and the clash of cultures puts tolerance to the test daily. Friction between traditionalist and sometimes militant Muslims and the freewheeling societies of Denmark and the Netherlands has already led to crisis and bloodshed. Legislating absolute protection for religious sensibilities without equal protection for secular, democratic beliefs would tilt the playing field against the European democracies as they struggle to defend their values on their own home turf. But holding firm could undermine Abdullah, arguably the best hope for reconciliation.

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