Egyptian President Calls Blasphemy a ‘Red Line,’ As Clinton Invokes ‘Free Expression’

Patrick Goodenough | September 14, 2012 | 4:20am EDT
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Secretary of State Hillary Clinton holds talks with Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi in Cairo on Saturday, July 14, 2012 (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)

( – Separate statements made Thursday by Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton revealed the nub of the issue that has sparked anti-U.S. protests in many Muslim countries – the incompatibility between shari’a and the First Amendment.

“The Islamic sanctities and prophet Mohamed is a red line for all Muslims,” Egypt’s state information service cited Morsi as saying in a speech on state television.

“We do not accept and we consider an enemy anyone who assaults our prophet through words or deeds,” he said, according to Al-Masry al-Youm. “I represent all the Egyptian people, I deprecate and I stand against whoever tries to abuse or exercise abuse of any kind against our prophet or any of the Islamic holy sites.”

At the State Department, speaking alongside her Moroccan counterpart, Clinton said, “our country does have a long tradition of free expression which is enshrined in our Constitution and our law, and we do not stop individual citizens from expressing their views no matter how distasteful they may be.

“There are, of course, different views around the world about the outer limits of free speech and free expression, but there should be no debate about the simple proposition that violence in response to speech is not acceptable,” she added.

Clinton balanced her remarks with strong condemnation of the Mohammed movie clip at the center of the controversy, while Morsi balanced his with condemnation of any action going beyond peaceful protests at U.S. diplomatic missions.

But their respective words underlined the deeper and enduring clash between a constitutional guarantee of freedom of expression and the requirement in shari’a that makes “blasphemy” a punishable offense.

Historically, blasphemy has been regarded as acts or words vilifying God, but Muslims consider denigration of Mohammed blasphemy – even though Islam regards him as a prophet rather than divine.

In some countries where shari’a holds sway, blasphemy against Mohammed is punishable by death, usually based on the Qur’anic injunction that “those who wage war against Allah and His Messenger” should be killed, crucified, lose their limbs or be exiled (Qur’an 5:33).

Although compliance and enforcement vary, the constitutions of at least 18 countries include phrases such as shari’a forming “the basis for,” “the principal source of” or “the main source of” legislation – Afghanistan, Bahrain, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Libya, Malaysia, Maldives, Mauritania, Oman, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, United Arab Emirates and Yemen.

In Afghanistan, for example, the latest State Department report on international religious freedom notes, “An Islamic judge may impose a death sentence for blasphemy, if committed by a male over age 18 or a female over age 16 of sound mind. Similar to apostates, those accused of blasphemy are given three days to recant or face death.”

The report says that in the Afghan context, blasphemy “can include anti-Islamic writings or speech, or the ‘defamation’ of Islam.”

‘Criminalize the abuse of sacred symbols and personalities’

Egyptian President Morsi, who spoke by phone to President Obama on Thursday, told reporters in Brussels he had condemned those behind the Mohammed film and had asked Obama to “to put an end to such behavior.”

A day earlier, the Egyptian cabinet had called on the Obama administration to take legal action against those responsible, as did the Muslim Brotherhood, which also called for “assaults on the sanctities of all heavenly religions” – that is, blasphemy – to be criminalized.

In a new statement Thursday, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party reiterated the demand.

“The U.S. must enforce the laws firmly and punish those who produce and promote such abusive material, so as to prevent the recurrence of such criminal acts rejected by civilized peoples and all heavenly religions, especially since Arab peoples no longer react so passively as they did in the past, after the revolutions in which they fought for their freedom and dignity,” it said in a statement.

It reiterated a call first made by the Muslim Brotherhood in 2000, urging all governments “to issue international conventions to criminalize the abuse of sacred symbols and personalities of heavenly religions and to consider that those who break this law threaten international peace and security and as such punishable by law.”

For more than a decade, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), a bloc of 56 Muslim states, has been promoting a drive at the United Nations to outlaw “religious defamation,” a move critics say aims ultimately to extend blasphemy-like restrictions to the non-Muslim world.

The U.S. and other Western democracies consistently opposed the campaign, but last year the Obama administration and OIC reached a compromise agreement – enshrined in a U.N. resolution – condemning stigmatization of people based on religion, although not calling for legal proscriptions, except in the specific case of religion-based “incitement to imminent violence.”

Critics worried that the initiative was pandering to, and helping to advance, the OIC’s anti-free speech agenda.

Last July, a senior Department of Justice official tussled with Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.), chairman of the House Judiciary subcommittee on the Constitution, over the question of criminalizing speech against religion.

Thomas Perez, Assistant Attorney General for the department’s Civil Rights Division, several times declined to reply in the affirmative when asked by Franks to give an assurance “that this administration’s Department of Justice will never entertain or advance a proposal that criminalizes speech against any religion.”

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