Pope Benedict XVI’s call last week for increased protection of Christians targeted by sectarian violence in the Middle East and elsewhere was met with a furious response by the Egyptian government, which complained that the pope’s comments constituted “unacceptable interference” in Egyptian affairs. The reaction of the Egyptian government is as revealing as it is hypocritical. When in 2005 the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published a number of cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad, the Egyptian government coordinated the campaign of member states of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) to pressure the Danish government into apologizing for the cartoons and taking action against the newspaper. Egypt has also played a leading role in the OIC’s continuous efforts at the United Nations to criminalize so-called “defamation of religion,” a naked attempt to prohibit criticism of Islam and restrict freedom of expression in the name of human rights.
This controversy follows on the heels of the brutal murder of moderate Pakistani politician Salmaan Taseer for his criticism of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, which are being used to oppress religious minorities — non-Muslims, to be sure, but also unorthodox Muslims, such as Ahmadiyyas and Sufis. Like Egypt, Pakistan has been one of the most active promoters of efforts to prohibit criticism of Islam and counter so-called “Islamophobia.” In fact, the first U.N. resolution on defamation of religion was introduced — initially as “defamation of Islam” — by Pakistan in 1999.
The OIC’s efforts as the international defender of Islam are probably an attempt both to appease domestic religious extremism and to counter what is perceived as increasing hostility toward Muslims in the West. It is true that significant portions of the populations of Western countries are uncomfortable with what is perceived as an aggressive and intolerant Islam, and some Westerners do harbor bigoted views of Muslims. It is also true that bans on the burka and minarets are difficult to reconcile with religious freedom and equality, and that Muslims have been disproportionately (though perhaps unavoidably) affected by the excesses of the “war against terrorism.” But in general, Muslims are not officially discriminated against in Western countries, where they enjoy far more freedom than they would in any OIC country. Despite serious problems with radicalism and lack of integration, there are numerous examples of prominent Western Muslims who have succeeded in business, politics, and other fields. The plight of Muslims in the West is thus in no way comparable to the plight of residents — including Muslims — of OIC states, who are frequently subject to systematic denial of basic rights as well as increasing violence from terrorists. In the light of the cartoon controversy, the response by Egypt to concerns about attacks on Christians suggests that Egypt considers it worse to offend the religious feelings of Muslims than to kill innocent non-Muslims.
The increasing extremist violence and the response of prominent OIC members such as Egypt is the logical outcome of the institutionalization of a particular religion and religious identity rather than pluralism, equal rights, and individual freedom as the basic framework of society. Rather than containing religious extremism, the efforts of a number of OIC countries to promote Islamic values have legitimized and fanned the fundamentalism that now threatens to tear apart those societies.
There is a lesson to be learned from this for Western governments. There is an urgent need to confront the OIC about its double standard. It is not enough to vote against the U.N. resolutions on defamation of religion .The plight of religious minorities and the denial of human rights in OIC countries must be put firmly on the agenda. It would be wrong to equate such criticism with hostility toward Muslims, or to back away from taking these principled steps for fear of misunderstanding. Responding to terrorist attacks, civic-minded Egyptian Muslims recently acted as human shields for Christian Copts celebrating Christmas. Moreover, a number of local human-rights organizations in Egypt and other OIC countries are extremely critical of the developments in their own regions. This shows that there are Muslims in these countries, however marginalized, who share the ideals of basic universal human rights and equality. It is their voices, not that of the OIC, that are the best hope for a future in which Egyptian Christians can attend church and Pakistani politicians can discuss the merits of blasphemy laws without fearing for their lives.
— Jacob Mchangama is director of legal affairs at the Danish think tank CEPOS and external lecturer in international human-rights law at the University of Copenhagen.