Islamic Bloc Revives Drive to Outlaw ‘Religious Defamation’ Worldwide

Patrick Goodenough | September 20, 2012 | 4:59am EDT
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Hezbollah supporters carry banners and wave Hezbollah flags during a march organized by the Shi’ite group to denounce an anti-Islam online film, in the Lebanese city of Tyre on Wednesday, Sept. 19, 2012. (AP Photo/Mohammed Zaatari)

( – A decade-old but temporarily-shelved push by Islamic governments to universally outlaw “blasphemy” looks poised to return to the international agenda, amid the ongoing furor over insulting depictions of Mohammed.

After more than a week of public demands by Muslim figures, including top Sunni clerics, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah and the Islamist leaders of Egypt and Turkey, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and Arab League have signaled a new global censorship push.

Obama administration officials have spoken out in support of the First Amendment in this context, although White House Press Secretary Jay Carney raised eyebrows last Friday when he confirmed the administration had asked YouTube to review whether a video clip mocking Mohammed “violates their terms of use.”

President Obama spoke by phone to the leaders of several countries where anti-U.S. protests linked to the film have occurred: Egypt, Afghanistan, Yemen and Turkey. White House readouts of the calls said the president rejected efforts to denigrate Islam while stressing there was never any justification for violence – but if he defended free speech, no mention was made of this.

“The hesitation on the part of this administration and the schizophrenia in response to this latest crisis is a cause for concern,” Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in the House on Wednesday. “The U.S. has nothing for which to apologize, including the exercise of freedom of expression.”

Islamic nations already were gearing up to formulate a response to the appearance online of the Mohammed film clip when the publication by a satirical French magazine Wednesday of cartoons lampooning Islam’s prophet triggered fresh complaints.

OIC secretary-general Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu meets with President Obama at the White House in April 2011. (Photo: OIC)

OIC Secretary-General Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu called on political and religious leaders worldwide “to take a united stand against fanatics and radicals involved in destabilizing global peace and security by fanning incitement and religious intolerance.”

It was time “for international community to take serious note of the dangerous implications of hate speech and inciting publications and come out of hiding behind the excuse of freedom of expression.”

The upcoming opening of the annual U.N. General Assembly session in New York, which brings together many world leaders, comes at an opportune time for the offended governments.

Announcing his intention to take up the matter at the General Assembly session, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has called for “international legal regulations against attacks on what people deem sacred."

Addressing a press conference Wednesday in Saudi Arabia, Ihsanoglu said a scheduled annual meeting of Muslim states’ foreign ministers on the sidelines of the General Assembly will discuss response options.

“All member countries should speak forcefully in one voice on this vital issue,” he said, referring to the 57 countries making up the Islamic bloc.

Ihsanoglu said he had spoken to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and Arab League secretary-general Nabil Al-Arabi about the need for “international measures to avoid a repetition of such provocative incidents.”

Al-Arabi said separately that the 22-member Arab League was working closely with Islamic, European and African countries to draw up an international convention penalizing the “defamation” of religions.

Early this week Nasrallah, in a rare public appearance, told a rally of supporters that the Lebanese government must demand a meeting of the Arab League to formulate a response to what Hezbollah’s website called a “sacrilegious anti-Islam film insulting Prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him and his chaste progeny).”

“All governments and people are required to put their utmost effort and exercise pressure on the international community to issue an international resolution and pass laws that criminalize such acts of insulting monotheistic religions,” he declared.

Supporters listen to a speech by Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, seen on a projection screen, during a July 2012 rally in Beirut. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)

Nasrallah, a leading terrorist with close ties to Syria and Iran, suggested that an insufficient response from Muslims would be blasphemous in itself.

“The Muslim world’s failure to come up with international laws that incriminate abuse against Islam will be tantamount to an offense against the Prophet Mohammed,” he added.

Immediately after Nasrallah spoke, the Lebanese government announced it was requesting an emergency meeting of the Arab League to discuss the matter.

Freedom of expression and minorities’ religious freedom in the balance

For more than a decade, the OIC has been calling for the outlawing of “religious defamation,” pushing through resolutions at the U.N. General Assembly and human rights bodies each year.

Western democracies opposed the move, until last year the Obama administration and OIC co-sponsored a compromise resolution condemning stigmatization based on religion but differing from the earlier “defamation” measures by not calling for legal restrictions – except in the specific case of religion-based “incitement to imminent violence.”

The U.S. portrayed the resolution as a breakthrough after years of polarizing debate, but the OIC made it clear that its “defamation” campaign was suspended, not dead.

With signs that it will now be revived, critics see cause for concern.

“In light of the recent demonstrations and attacks in the name of Allah, it is likely that the United Nations will see a renewed push for a defamation of religions resolution,” Tiffany Barrans, International Legal Director at the American Center for Law and Justice said Wednesday.

“This push should be emphatically rejected by those who wish to preserve freedom of expression and open dialogue and debate about religion.”

Barrans noted that OIC members such as Pakistan and Indonesia repeatedly have said they would push for a new global law.

“International human rights standards derive from the inherent dignity of humankind as individuals,” she said. “One does not have to look too deep into Pakistan’s or Indonesia’s own blasphemy laws to know that to expand human rights to include rights belonging to ideologies or belief systems places minorities – those whom human rights laws are designed to protect – at risk.”

Barrans pointed to a recent case involving a young Pakistani Christian girl with Down syndrome falsely accused of under blasphemy laws which she said “empower ruling majorities against weak minorities and dissenters.”

“All nations that respect religious freedom and freedom of expression should take a strong stance against any push for a defamations-of-religions resolution,” she argued. “A person’s right to freedom of expression, even expression that might be deemed offensive, is considered a ‘cornerstone right,’ without which other rights fall into jeopardy.”

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