The Turkish English-language publication Today’s Zaman has just recently reported on its website the comments of Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan concerning the implications of the Internet trailer for the movie Innocence of Muslims for free speech. The statements from the elected leader of an important North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) member are an alarm bell for anyone concerned about the increasing threats to freedom of speech from various Muslim quarters around the world.
Speaking on September 16, 2012, during a visit to Sarajevo, Bosnia, Erdoğan noted that he is the “prime minister of a nation, of which most are Muslims and that has declared anti-Semitism a crime against humanity [No word yet on whether Turkey has declared the Ottoman Empire’s 1915 Armenian genocide a crime against humanity]. But the West hasn’t recognized Islamophobia as a crime against humanity—it has encouraged it.” Erdoğan elaborated that “Freedom of thought and belief ends where the freedom of thought and belief of others start. You can say anything about your thoughts and beliefs, but you will have to stop when you are at the border of others’ freedoms.”
Erdoğan called for “international legal regulations against attacks on what people deem sacred, on religion” as well as “something in terms of domestic law.” Stating that Turkish legislators will immediately seek to prohibit blasphemous remarks, Erdoğan proclaimed that “Turkey could be a leading example for the rest of the world on this.” Erdoğan’s announced agenda, meanwhile, complements the longstanding efforts to prohibit “defamation of religion” by the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), an international body encompassing 56 majority-Muslim states (including Turkey) and the Palestinian Authority (PA) headed by Erdoğan’s Turkish compatriot, Secretary General Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu.
Erdoğan’s comments are fallacious and troubling for a number of different reasons. To begin with, he equates opposition to people merely for their existence with a distinct identity (i.e. anti-Semitism) with opposition to an idea such as a belief in Islam, however important such an idea might be to those who identify with it. Such thinking is a complete distortion of the word “prejudice." While any aversion or hostility to people merely because of their ancestry or appearance qualifies as a prejudice, criticism of a belief system such as Islam on the basis of objective analysis is the precise opposite of a prejudgment. In line with the tenor of Erdoğan’s comments, he refers to “Islamophobia,” an increasingly accepted term that, as critical research has revealed, originated in the 1990s amongst Muslim Brotherhood satellite groups as a tool to silence all criticism of Islam as a new totalitarian thought crime.
Erdoğan’s analysis that “[f]reedom of thought and belief ends where the freedom of thought and belief of others start” is, to say the least, bizarre and logically impossible. Although in the physical realm persons can delineate their own private spheres such that, according to the well-known colloquialism, the freedom to punch another person’s nose ends where that nose begins, various ideas concerning religion or anything else fundamentally contradict one another. Attempts to identify correct beliefs from false ones, therefore, require comparing, contrasting, and criticism in a free market of ideas.
Any attempt to implement Erdoğan’s standard will inevitably result in decisions concerning where peoples’ various beliefs begin and end, with corresponding restrictions for other people with opposing beliefs. Indeed, as a report on blasphemy laws by the organization Human Rights First shows, blasphemy laws throughout majority-Muslim countries often suppress religious beliefs such as those of Christianity deemed heretical by Islam. There is, moreover, a question of equal enforcement of the laws. While Muslims around the world such as Erdoğan are outraged by Innocence of Muslims, the burning of the American flag and the ripping apart of a Bible by a Muslim cleric during the September 11, 2012 storming of the American Cairo, Egypt, embassy do not seem to have raised much concern among Muslims or others around the world. The end result of Erdoğan’s efforts will thus not be an equal protection of all against offense, but the subordination of some to others.
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