World Leaders Rally for Blasphemy Laws

But a few courageous voices condemn the global assault on free speech.

In response to the Innocence of Muslims global controversy, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan called for recognizing “Islamophobia as a crime against humanity” and “international legal regulations against attacks on what people deem sacred.”  In the statement's wake, the number of political leaders around the world openly musing about restrictions on anti-Islamic speech has only increased.

Erdoğan’s Turkish compatriot, Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, secretary general of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), a grouping of 56 Muslim-majority states (including Turkey) and the Palestinian Authority (PA), said on September 19, 2012 that the international community should “come out of hiding from behind the excuse of freedom of expression” used by Western countries against a decade-long campaign by the OIC to effect universal blasphemy laws.  Ihsanoglu described the “deliberate, motivated and systematic abuse of this freedom” as a threat to global security. The Human Rights Commission of the Saudi Arabian-headquartered OIC, meanwhile, called for the halting of “growing intolerance towards Muslims” and for “an international code of conduct for media and social media to disallow the dissemination of incitement material.”

That same day, Ihsanoglu’s counterpart at the United Nations, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, decried at a news conference the making of Innocence of Muslims as a “disgraceful and shameful act” that represented an abuse of “freedom of expression…a fundamental right and privilege.”  Using “freedom of expression to provoke or humiliate some others’ values and beliefs” was not worthy of protection. Rather, Ki-moon indicated that such freedom only deserved protection when “used for common justice, common purpose.”  Like Erdoğan’s previously analyzed bizarre understanding of intellectual freedom, Ki-moon would apparently allow majorities to prohibit an individual’s expression deemed not serving a “common” collective goal, a fundamental inversion of the traditionally recognized need to protect minority views in a free market of ideas.

Rounding out the number of international organizations now apparently ready to implement the medieval-sounding idea of blasphemy laws, Arab League Secretary General Nabil al-Araby stated at league headquarters in Cairo, Egypt on September 19, 2012 that the league, the OIC, the European Union (EU), and the African Union (AU) were about to formulate an international agreement penalizing blasphemy.  Indeed, the next day, al-Araby, Ihsanoglu, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Catherine Ashton, and AU Commissioner for Peace and Security Ramtane Lamamra issued a joint statement on the eve of Muslim Friday prayers, which was designed to quell further violence resulting from Innocence of Muslims and the subsequent publication by the French satire magazine Charlie Hebdo of cartoons mocking Islam’s prophet Muhammad.

“While fully recognizing freedom of expression,” the statement stressed the “importance of respecting all prophets, regardless of which religion they belong to.”  The statement added to its respect for a prophet pantheon the declaration that the “anguish of Muslims at the production of the film insulting Islam, posting of its trailer on the internet and other similar acts, is shared by all individuals and communities who refuse to allow religion to be used to fuel provocation, confrontation and extremism.”  The statement also professed a desire to “ensure that the recent events do not undermine the relationships of trust and respect we have built up over so many years among our peoples, communities and states,” citing amiable relationships perhaps previously unnoticed by many Europeans. In an act of moral equivalence between filmmakers and rioters/terrorists, the statement then proclaimed that the “international community cannot be held hostage to the acts of extremists on either side.”  The four officials then concluded by stating that they “reiterate our strong commitment to take further measures and to work for an international consensus on tolerance and full respect of religion, including on the basis of UN Human Rights Council resolution 16/18.”

This last reference to resolution 16/18 is a red flag to anyone concerned about the implications of “respect of religion”  according Islam for freedoms of speech and religion.  As this author and others have analyzed, resolution 16/18 is the latest incarnation of the previously mentioned OIC efforts to effectuate international blasphemy laws.  Although watered down by American diplomatic efforts from its original OIC formulation, the resolution in its present form still contains ambiguous phrases capable of justifying Islamic restrictions on free expression.  Indeed, the report by the Italy-based news organization ANSAmed on the statement said that it “stressed the organizations’ engagement in promoting anti-blasphemy measures within a UN resolution on human rights.”

Apparently expressing a now standard EU policy, the President of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz, a German Social Democrat (SPD), had earlier declared in a September 15, 2012 press release that he “strongly condemn[s] the use of religion to incite hatred and violence” as well as the “unjustified violence” following the worldwide appearance of Innocence of Muslims.  Schulz “also criticize[d] any attempt to ridicule Islam.”  Schulz reiterated his views on, once again, September 19, 2012, stating that he “condemn[s] strongly not only the content but also the distribution of such a movie, which is humiliating the feelings of a lot of people all over the world” (video of Schulz speaking in the presence of two Arab Muslim dignitaries from the Gulf States here).

The deference to Islam by the leftist Schulz, though, did not go unnoticed.  Schulz’s parliament colleague from the “centre-right,” Hans van Baalen of the Dutch VVD (Volkspartij voor Vrijheid en Democratie or Party for Freedom and Democracy), told a Dutch radio station that “Schulz should be standing up for the freedom of expression.”  Schulz’s “denunciation puts him on the wrong side of the argument. He’d have been better off saying that while he personally might find it a bad film, it must be possible to make and distribute it.”  Van Baalen, in contrast, approved of the Muslim Moroccan-Dutch Rotterdam mayor, Ahmed Abu Taleb, who “spoke out for freedom of expression and advised Muslims to ignore the film.”

Van Baalen’s fellow Dutch politician, noted Islam opponent Geert Wilders of the Dutch Freedom Party (Partij voor de Vrijheid or PVV), tweeted that Schulz is a “coward” who had “sentenced freedom of speech to death.”  The leader of the PVV delegation to the European Parliament, Laurence Stassen, even went so far as to call for Schulz’s resignation.  Expressing similar sentiments, one person has contemptuously posted to Youtube a video entitled Martin Schulz: Whore of islam [sic], juxtaposing Schulz’s call for a prohibition of Innocence of Muslims with images of often unnoticed anti-Semitism in Muslim countries and of slain American Ambassador Christopher Stevens.

In Schulz’s home of Germany, meanwhile, there has been discussion of banning Innocence of Muslims on the part of various German policy makers and political figures, including Chancellor Angela Merkel.  Muslim groups in Germany like the Koordinationsrat der Muslime (Coordination Council of Muslims) and the Zentralrat der Muslime (Central Council of Muslims) have called for a prohibition of any public showing of the film, with the latter organization’s chairman, Aiman Mayzek, warning of street battles in case of any screening.  The Liberal-Islamischer Bund (Liberal-Islamic Federation), though, rejects any such prohibition.

Already Germany has stopped internationally known Koran burner Terry Jones from entering the country in order take part in a Berlin screening of the film.  Evaluations by German police authorities of the security situation created by Muslim reactions to Innocence of Muslims around the world also led the German Interior Ministry to postpone a poster campaign for a call-in help center designed to combat radicalization among German Muslims.  Turkish authorities and German Muslim groups had criticized the campaign in the past as being discriminatory.

Such a full court press of public leaders advocating restrictions on free expression in the name of placating often aggressive Muslim groups demonstrates the degree to which such freedom is under threat today.  Yet the events of recent days show that even now there are still individuals committed to continued respect of fundamental principles of freedom, whatever the intimidation.  They deserve more support in the days to come.

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