New Cause for Muslim Leaders: ‘Defamation’

Clash at U.N. Between Competing Visions of Religious Freedom

Getty Images

By J.J. Goldberg

Published October 05, 2012, issue of October 12, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

Something serious happened at the United Nations this September, and it should be getting a lot more attention than it’s gotten. A string of Muslim heads of state rose before the General Assembly at its annual summit and demanded that America and the West substantially abridge their notions of freedom and human dignity.

What they’re calling for, in various forms, is an international treaty banning the “defamation” of particular religions or their sacred figures. In practice, they want Western nations to outlaw the publication or broadcast of ideas that Muslims would likely find insulting to Islam or its prophet.

It’s presented as religious tolerance, but it’s not exactly what the West means by tolerance. Western liberalism promises to protect believers’ rights to believe and practice their faith, free of physical hindrance. Defamation may be proscribed as hate speech when it’s likely to incite violence against the object of hatred. By contrast, the Islamic leaders want believers protected from hearing their beliefs insulted. When they speak of preventing incitement, they mean hate speech that’s likely to incite violence by the victim of the insult.

The symbolic importance of this moment should not be understated. The Arab democratic uprisings of 2011, for all their initial promise, succeeded in toppling only three dictators, in Egypt, Yemen and Libya. For the new, democratically elected leaders of those three nations, this September marked their first appearance on the world stage. In a real sense, this was the inaugural message of the hopeful new Arab democracy movement. For believers in Western democracy it’s a sobering moment.

This isn’t the first time the idea of protecting Islam from insult has been brought to the U.N. Muslim states have been seeking and winning resolutions since 1999 condemning “defamation of a religion” and singling out Islam for special protection. In the past, though, they’ve been toothless expressions of “concern,” passed either by the U.N.’s notorious human rights commission in Geneva or at sleepy midwinter sessions of the General Assembly, attended mostly by anonymous diplomats.

This year, for the first time, the demand was raised at the assembly’s gala opening summit, with the eyes of the world watching. The advocates were not faceless envoys but three distinguished heads of state: the presidents of newly-democratic Egypt and Yemen and of nuclear-armed Pakistan, along with the foreign minister of oil-rich, supposedly stable Algeria.

Here’s how Yemeni President Abed Rabbu Mansour Hadi framed the issue in his September 26 speech to the General Assembly: “There should be limits for the freedom of expression, especially if such freedom blasphemes the beliefs of nations and defames their figures.”

“We need international laws to prevent more abuses of freedom of expression,” Hadi said, according to the Italian news agency ANSA.

Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, who spoke shortly before Hadi, was the most forceful of all. “The insults heard on the Prophet of Islam Muhammad are rejected,” he said, according to the C-SPAN transcript. “We reject this. We cannot accept this, and we will be the opponents of those who do this. We will not allow anyone to do this by word or deed.”

In Morsi’s view, “the General Assembly and the Security Council have a main responsibility in addressing this phenomenon.” The “obscenities” of the “video recently released as part of an organized campaign against Islamic sanctities are unacceptable,” he said. “We have a responsibility in this international gathering to study how we can protect the world from instability and hatred.”

Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, who spoke the previous evening, issued a nearly identical call for international laws to protect Islam’s good name. Ditto Algerian Foreign Minister Mourad Medelci, who spoke later in the week.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • “Twist and Shout.” “Under the Boardwalk.” “Brown-Eyed Girl.” What do these great songs have in common? A forgotten Jewish songwriter. We tracked him down.
  • What can we learn from tragedies like the rampage in suburban Kansas City? For one thing, we must keep our eyes on the real threats that we as Jews face.
  • When is a legume not necessarily a legume? Philologos has the answer.
  • "Sometime in my childhood, I realized that the Exodus wasn’t as remote or as faceless as I thought it was, because I knew a former slave. His name was Hersh Nemes, and he was my grandfather." Share this moving Passover essay!
  • Getting ready for Seder? Chag Sameach! http://jd.fo/q3LO2
  • "We are not so far removed from the tragedies of the past, and as Jews sit down to the Seder meal, this event is a teachable moment of how the hatred of Jews-as-Other is still alive and well. It is not realistic to be complacent."
  • Aperitif Cocktail, Tequila Shot, Tom Collins or Vodka Soda — Which son do you relate to?
  • Elvis craved bacon on tour. Michael Jackson craved matzo ball soup. We've got the recipe.
  • This is the face of hatred.
  • What could be wrong with a bunch of guys kicking back with a steak and a couple of beers and talking about the Seder? Try everything. #ManSeder
  • BREAKING: Smirking killer singled out Jews for death in suburban Kansas City rampage. 3 die in bloody rampage at JCC and retirement home.
  • Real exodus? For Mimi Minsky, it's screaming kids and demanding hubby on way down to Miami, not matzo in the desert.
  • The real heroines of Passover prep aren't even Jewish. But the holiday couldn't happen without them.
  • Is Handel’s ‘Messiah’ an anti-Semitic screed?
  • Meet the Master of the Matzo Ball.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.