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.