Defending free speech at the United Nations

Defending free speech at

Freedom of speech is under physical and legal threat not only from terrorists but also at the UN. Two US-based Islamists planned to kill a cartoonist and the editor of Denmark's Jyllands-Posten responsible for publishing cartoons depicting Muhammad in 2005, it was revealed a few weeks ago. Meanwhile, at the UN, the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) delivered another blow with a resolution on "combating defamation of religion," which was passed by a committee of the UN's General Assembly on 12 November. While the tactics employed by terrorists and the OIC are obviously different, the purpose is essentially the same: to ensure that criticism of Islam is censored. And it is working. Following news of the foiled attack against Jyllands-Posten, leading Danish newspapers refrained from reprinting the Muhammad cartoons despite doing so last year when another attack on the cartoonist was foiled. While the editors have explained this omission as a matter of "responsibility," fear would seem more likely. That was, after all, the reason why Yale University chose to omit pictures of Muhammad in a book called The Cartoons That Shook the World. Thus, grotesquely, a book dedicated to investigating "the conflict that aroused impassioned debates around the world on freedom of expression, blasphemy and the nature of modern Islam" does not contain the very cartoons which were at the core of the book's subject matter. From Salman Rushdie to Jyllands-Posten, death threats have had a chilling effect on discussion, let alone criticism, of Islam. The efforts to ban criticism of Islam through human rights law at the UN are not yet legally binding but they are making progress. The OIC has been successful in passing numerous resolutions on defamation of religion at the General Assembly and the Human Rights Council. The latest from March 2009 states that "defamation of religions is a serious affront to human dignity leading to restriction on the freedom of religion." IN GENEVA, the OIC is working on the adoption of a legally binding instrument that would oblige member states to prohibit criticism of religion. In an explanatory letter of October 29 the OIC said that in Denmark and the Netherlands the personality of Muhammad had been ridiculed with intent to "violate Muslim sentiments" and, therefore, "the contention that human rights standards should apply only to individuals is not credible." The concept of defamation of religion thus turns human rights on their head by protecting abstract religions and ideas from criticism by individuals, rather than protecting individuals from oppressive dogmas. While the Western states at the UN have weakly complained about the concept of defamation of religion, the relentless efforts of the 57-member OIC and its allies have got the votes. Too often Western states have entered into seemingly harmless compromises that really serve as a way of chipping away at the concept of free speech bit by bit. The latest example is the Obama administration's co-sponsoring at the UN of a resolution on freedom of speech with Egypt - of all countries. But this resolution of October 2009 also condemns "negative religious stereotyping." This concept is not included as one of the permissible restrictions of free speech under international human rights law, so it suggests a protection of religions and religious symbols, not just individuals. That very interpretation was emphasized by the OIC, which at the vote stated that "negative stereotyping or defamation of religions was a modern expression of religious hatred and xenophobia. This spread not only to individuals but to religions and belief systems." Accordingly the US-Egyptian compromise may help repression of dissenters such as the Egyptian blogger Kareem who has been imprisoned for four years for insulting Islam - by criticizing religious intolerance. With protection for a loosely-defined concept like religion, the self-proclaimed victims will be the ones who can determine when they feel offended. That is particularly dangerous in countries where the state is the guardian of religion - such as Iran and Saudi Arabia - since the prohibition will affect not only the ability to freely discuss religion but also the ability to criticize the government. Instead of being on the defensive and compromising free speech, Western states should go on the offensive and strengthen it. That would not only give an important morale boost to the victims of death threats from terrorists but also to the many oppressed citizens of Muslim countries who cannot speak their minds or question the dominant religion. So far the most vocal opponents of the OIC have been an impressive alliance of NGOs and human rights activists including some from Muslim countries such as Indonesia, Bahrain and Egypt. If a number of brave Muslims have the courage to defend free speech against the nefarious agendas of their own governments and the repressive interpretations of their own religion, so should the political leaders of the West. The writer is head of legal affairs at CEPOS, a Danish think tank, and an external lecturer of international human rights law at the University of Copenhagen.