State Dept. Aims to Denounce ‘Offensive Speech’ While Upholding Free Expression

Patrick Goodenough | December 13, 2011 | 4:25am EST
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OIC secretary-general Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu meets with President Obama at the White House in April 2011. (Photo: OIC)

( – The State Department on Monday launched three days of closed-door talks with representatives of international organizations and several dozen countries with the stated aim of promoting religious freedom and tolerance while ensuring that freedom of expression is not harmed in the process.

"We must denounce offensive speech whenever we encounter it – but our commitment to universal principles makes clear that faith must never be a crime and religion must never be used as an excuse to stifle freedom of expression,” U.S. Ambassador at Large for international religious freedom Suzan Johnson Cook told the meeting in Washington.

The Obama administration’s initiative, building on a resolution adopted by the U.N. Human Rights Council (HRC) last March, has drawn some criticism, in part because of the key role being played by the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), which has sought for years to stifle speech deemed to denigrate Islam.

The OIC, a bloc of 56 Muslim states, has campaigned for more than a decade against “defamation of religion,” galvanized by actions such as the publications of newspaper cartoons satirizing Mohammed, anti-shari’a activism, and threats to damage copies of the Qur’an.

Opponents have resisted the “defamation” drive, arguing that along with insulting speech the OIC was also trying to shield Islam, Islamic practices and religious leaders from legitimate scrutiny, in line with blasphemy laws enforced in some OIC member-states.

In its materials on the so-called “Istanbul Process” meetings, the State Department has played down the OIC’s role, listing it merely as one of several international organizations participating, among them the European Union, Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and the office of the U.N’s high commissioner for human rights.

In reality, the OIC has been the driving force behind the Istanbul Process. The meeting in Istanbul that launched the process last July was hosted by the OIC and co-chaired by OIC secretary-general Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

The OIC also sponsored the HRC resolution at the heart of the process, known as resolution 16/18. Unlike previous OIC resolutions on the matter, the new one dropped the concept of “religious defamation” and acknowledged the need to protect freedom of expression, thus making it acceptable to Western governments which had long opposed and voted against the defamation measures. The resolution was adopted by consensus.

For the Obama administration and some human rights advocacy groups, resolution 16/18 marked a breakthrough, and proponents of U.S. engagement with the U.N. said it vindicated Washington’s decision to return to the HRC.

The OIC’s anti-blasphemy agenda remains unchanged, however, and critics view the administration’s initiative – an attempt to balance religious sensitivities and freedom of expression – as unfeasible and naive.

U.S. Ambassador at Large for international religious freedom Suzan Johnson Cook speaks at a gala in Washington on Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2011. (AP Photo/Ann Heisenfelt)

Opening the talks on Monday before the meeting moved into closed session, Cook said that although participants came from a wide range of backgrounds, resolution 16/18 “unites us in a common purpose.”

“This purpose is to advance religious freedom, promote religious tolerance, and combat discrimination on the basis of religion or belief – consistent with universal human rights principles,” she said. “This means a commitment to protect religious minorities and protect freedom of expression.”

At the Istanbul meeting over the summer, Clinton indicated that effective ways to counter actions and speech that upset religious adherents would include interfaith education, antidiscrimination laws, and the use of “some old-fashioned techniques of peer pressure and shaming.”

Cook said in her opening remarks Monday that “offensive speech” must be denounced, but free speech must be upheld at the same time.

“We know that some people distort various religious doctrines to justify intolerance, foment violence, or create strife that serves their narrow political purposes,” she said. “We must denounce offensive speech whenever we encounter it – but our commitment to universal principles makes clear that faith must never be a crime and religion must never be used as an excuse to stifle freedom of expression.”

This week’s meetings in Washington will include two tracks:

--Identifying ways to better enforce laws that prohibit discrimination on the basis of religion or belief; and

--Exploring effective government strategies to engage religious minorities, including training of officials in religious and cultural awareness.

A report will then be submitted to the U.N’s high commissioner for human rights, to be shared with U.N. member states “and the general public,” Cook said.

‘Effort to chill and curb religious liberties and free speech in America’

Last week, Rep. Ted Poe (R-Texas) wrote to Clinton, voicing concern about the collaboration with the OIC, AFP reported

“We are eager to work with you to preserve the universal right of all individuals to speak out freely regardless of their religious beliefs,” Poe was quoted as saying in the letter.

“The OIC’s charter, however, clearly is against this most basic human right, and we ask that you use all the resources at our disposal to protect freedom of speech around the world.”

“What we are seeing here is a direct assault with the United Nations, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, and our own U.S. State Department in an effort to chill and curb religious liberties and free speech in America,” Traditional Values Coalition president Andrea Lafferty said in a statement.

“Americans are tired of being told that we are our own worst enemy. Terrorists attacked the United States, in the name of Islam, because they hate the freedoms that make us strong,” she said. “What will history say if we allowed the diplomats and bureaucrats of the United Nations and State Department to accomplish what terrorists and planes could not?”

Lafferty said this week’s meeting followed an administration pattern of silencing free speech in favor of “good speech.”

She cited several examples, including a reported directive by the Justice Department last October to withdraw references to Islam from counter-terror training materials.

“We also are working comprehensively to ensure that every aspect of the department’s work reflects sensitivity and respect for all peoples and faiths,” Deputy Attorney General James Cole said in an Oct. 19 speech at a DoJ “conference on post 9/11 discrimination.”

“As just one example, to that end, I recently directed all components of the Department of Justice to re-evaluate their training efforts in a range of areas, from community outreach to national security, to make sure they reflect that sensitivity,” he said.

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