An unprecedented collaboration between the Obama administration and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC, formerly called the Organization of the Islamic Conference) to combat “Islamophobia” may soon result in the delegitimization of freedom of expression as a human right.
The administration is taking the lead in an international effort to “implement” a U.N. resolution against religious “stereotyping,” specifically as applied to Islam. To be sure, it argues that the effort should not result in free-speech curbs. However, its partners in the collaboration, the 56 member states of the OIC, have no such qualms. Many of them police private speech through Islamic blasphemy laws and the OIC has long worked to see such codes applied universally. Under Muslim pressure, Western Europe now has laws against religious hate speech that serve as proxies for Islamic blasphemy codes.
Last March, U.S. diplomats maneuvered the adoption of Resolution 16/18 within the U.N. Human Rights Council (HRC). Non-binding, this resolution, inter alia, expresses concern about religious “stereotyping” and “negative profiling” but does not limit free speech. It was intended to — and did — replace the OIC’s decidedly dangerous resolution against “defamation of religions,” which protected religious institutions instead of individual freedoms.
But thanks to a puzzling U.S. diplomatic initiative that was unveiled in July, Resolution 16/18 is poised to become a springboard for a greatly reinvigorated international effort to criminalize speech against Islam, the very thing it was designed to quash.
Citing a need to “move to implementation” of Resolution 16/18, the Obama administration has inexplicably decided to launch a major international effort against Islamophobia in partnership with the Saudi-based OIC. This is being voluntarily assumed at American expense, outside the U.N. framework, and is not required by the resolution itself.
On July 15, a few days after the Norway massacre, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton co-chaired an OIC session in Istanbul on religious intolerance. It was there that she announced the initiative, inviting the OIC member-states’ foreign ministers and representatives to the inaugural meeting of the effort that the U.S. government would host this fall in Washington. She envisions it as the first in a series of meetings to decide how best to implement Resolution 16/18.
In making the announcement, Clinton was firm in asserting that the U.S. does not want to see speech restrictions: “The resolution calls upon states to ‘counter offensive expression through education, interfaith dialogue, and public debate . . . but not to criminalize speech unless there is an incitement to imminent violence.’” (This is the First Amendment standard set forth in the 1969 Supreme Court case of Brandenburg v. Ohio.)
With the United States providing this new world stage for presenting grievances of “Islamophobia” against the West, the OIC rallied around the initiative as the propaganda windfall that it is. It promptly reasserted its demands for global blasphemy laws, once again sounding the call of its failed U.N. campaign for international laws against the so-called defamation of Islam. It has made plain its aim to use the upcoming conference to further pressure Western governments to regulate speech on behalf of Islam.
The OIC’s understanding of the upcoming meetings is that they will “aim at developing a legal basis for the U.N. Human Rights Council’s resolution which [will] help in enacting domestic laws for the countries involved in the issue, as well as formulating international laws preventing inciting hatred resulting from the continued defamation of religions.”
In an August 17 op-ed on the initiative, OIC secretary general Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu was enthusiastic. He expressed concern that “anti-Islam and anti-Muslim attitudes and activities, known as Islamophobia, are increasingly finding place in the agenda of ultra-right wing political parties and civil societies in the West in their anti-immigrant and anti-multiculturalism policies,” and that “their views are being promoted under the banner of freedom of expression.” This parallels the old Soviet-bloc attack on the First Amendment as an official sanctioning of racism.
Citing a familiar litany of examples — “the publication of offensive cartoons of the Prophet six years ago that sparked outrage across the Muslim world, the publicity around the film Fitna and the more recent Qur’an burnings” — Ihsanoglu was emphatic that “no one has the right to insult another for their beliefs or to incite hatred and prejudice” and that “freedom of expression has to be exercised with responsibility.”
In a separate OIC news report, Ihsanoglu raised the stakes further. He warned against the “institutionalization of the phenomenon of Islamophobia through the involvement of the European extreme right in government institutions and political action.”
Amb. Zamir Akram, Pakistan’s Permanent Representative on behalf of the OIC to the HRC, commented regarding the initiative that the OIC would not compromise on “anything against the Quran, anything against the Prophet and anything against the Muslim community in terms of discrimination.”
As for reciprocity — for example, reforming the Saudi national curriculum that continues to teach students to “kill” Jews, “fight” polytheists, view Christians as “enemies,” and spread Islam through “jihad” — there probably won’t be any.
This initiative is shaping up to be one-sided. As Akram said, “The Resolution 16/18 was driven more by the kind of discrimination in Europe and the West in general against Muslims.” He added: “I don’t think any country in the Muslim world is deliberately discriminating against minorities.” Ihsanoglu took a similar tack, writing that “the Islamic faith is based on tolerance and acceptance of other religions. It does not condone discrimination of human beings on the basis of caste, creed, color, or faith.” (In his op-ed, Ihsanoglu also declared that “the OIC has never sought to limit freedom of expression.”)
Having won the latest round in the ideological contest for individual rights and freedoms at the United Nations this past March, the administration is now gratuitously establishing a new “transnational” forum to essentially re-litigate the matter with a body that is openly hostile to such freedoms. This forum’s agenda is to be structured so that freedom of expression will be put on trial and inevitably condemned by most forum participants as, itself, a human-rights violation. In raising OIC expectations that “anti-Islam and anti-Muslim attitudes” will be dealt with under soon-to-be-drafted “implementation” procedures, the administration is riding a tiger.
In his 2009 Cairo speech, President Obama said, “I consider it part of my responsibility as President of the United States to fight against negative stereotypes of Islam whenever they appear.” There are a number of problems with this statement: One is that it encourages the diplomatic folly that is this conference.
— Nina Shea is director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom and co-author, with Paul Marshall, of Silenced: How Apostasy and Blasphemy Codes are Choking Freedoms Worldwide (Oxford University Press, November 2011).