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 idea of outlawing defamation of Islam was first brought to the U.N. human rights commission in 1999 by Pakistan, acting on behalf of the 57-nation Organization of Islamic Cooperation. The main complaint at the time was that Islam was suffering widespread defamation by unfair association with terrorism, violence and human rights abuses.
The commission adopted a statement without a vote, but it wasn’t what the Islamic bloc was looking for. Avoiding any mention of “defamation,” it focused mainly on religious intolerance and discrimination, with a nod to “stereotyping” of Islam. After a 2000 bid produced the same result, the Islamic bloc presented a firmer resolution in 2001. This time it was brought to a vote and passed 28 to 15 with nine abstentions. Most of the “no” votes were from European and other Western democracies.
Over the next decade the Islamic bloc pushed for increasingly forceful resolutions, succeeding each year but with steadily declining support. The first time the General Assembly voted on the issue, in 2006, it passed 111 to 54, with 18 abstentions. By 2009 yeas had dropped to 80, with 61 nays and 42 abstaining. Opponents and abstainers now included large numbers of Latin American and African nations that had previously supported it. There were even a few abstentions from smaller members of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, like Benin and Cameroon, whose populations are less than 25% Muslim.
Finally, in December 2011, pressure from the European Union and the Obama administration resulted in a General Assembly resolution that dropped “defamation of religion” altogether. Last year’s resolution reflected the Western version of religious freedom, calling for protection of believers, not beliefs. That’s the backdrop to this year’s startling new assertiveness.
It’s important to note that the overall tone of all four leaders’ speeches was conciliatory. Morsi spent much of his speech urging global action to fight hunger in Africa and stop the slaughter in Syria. Zardari spoke mostly of Pakistan’s tens of thousands of losses, including his wife, Benazir Bhutto, “in the epic struggle against terrorism.” All four spoke about the Palestinians. Morsi notably reaffirmed Egypt’s commitment to the Arab Peace Initiative — the plan, first floated by Saudi Arabia in 2002, that promises Israel full peace and recognition from all 22 Arab states in exchange for a return to the pre-1967 armistice lines.
There’s good and bad in what some in the region now call the new Arab awakening. Those who try to blame (or praise) President Obama for the events should proceed with caution. For good or ill, he wasn’t the president who started sending in troops to topple Arab dictators. That would be the guy before him.
Contact J.J. Goldberg at firstname.lastname@example.org
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).