The divide in world opinion over what constitutes free speech will be on display again next week at the United Nations, where heated arguments over a proposed blasphemy law were an annual feature for the past decade. This time it’s the global reaction to a YouTube video that disparages Islam’s Prophet Muhammad that’s sure to roil the meeting of the U.N. General Assembly.
Muslim leaders have vowed to discuss the offensive video from their U.N. platforms, sowing concern among free-speech activists of a fresh push toward an international law criminalizing blasphemy. Human rights groups and Western democracies resisted such an initiative for years and thought they’d finally quashed the matter after convincing enough nations that repressive regimes use blasphemy laws to imprison or execute dissidents.
“I expect that we’ll regress to where we were a couple of years ago,” said Courtney C. Radsch, program manager for the Global Freedom of Expression Campaign at Freedom House, the Washington-based nonprofit group that promotes democratic values.
“Human rights are not about protecting religions; human rights are to protect humans,” added Radsch, who’s followed the issue closely at the U.N. “Who is going to be the decision-maker on deciding what blasphemy is?”
At one end of the spectrum lies France, where a magazine on Wednesday published cartoons of the prophet as a naked, cowering man to underscore a point that even the most offensive expression should be protected. France plans to close its embassies and schools in 20 countries Friday as a precaution against retaliatory attacks.
At the other end of the spectrum is U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who surprised – and disappointed – many free-speech activists by suggesting limitations to freedom of speech when it’s “used to provoke or humiliate.”
“We are living through a period of unease. We are also seeing incidents of intolerance and hatred that are then exploited by others,” Ban told the 193-member assembly at the gathering’s opening this week. “Voices of moderation and calm need to make themselves heard at this time. We all need to speak up in favor of mutual respect and understanding of the values and beliefs of others.”
The head of the Arab League, Nabil Elaraby, decried the depictions of the prophet but added that only “peaceful means” should be used to protest them, according to news reports.
Elaraby’s native Egypt, however, took legal action, with the Islamist-led government filing a lawsuit against the Egyptian-American filmmakers of “Innocence of Muslims;” authorities also detained without charge an Egyptian atheist who’s accused of posting the video online.
The ultraconservative Islamists of the Nour Party went even farther, filing a formal request with the public prosecutor to revoke citizenship for any Egyptian who insults the prophet.
The Obama administration, meanwhile, quickly shushed a rogue public relations employee at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo who’d reportedly gone off-message to condemn the video at the onset of the crisis. This week, after Republicans assailed the administration’s confusing response, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland sounded forceful in her defense of free speech.
“Whereas this may be repugnant, it may be insulting, we may all be offended by it, and we separate ourselves definitively from it – as a government we’re not involved – we believe in free speech,” Nuland said. “We believe that free speech should be protected, and there’s never an excuse for violence as a result of an insult.”
Protests over the crudely made “Innocence of Muslims” video have taken place in dozens of countries over the past week. On Thursday in Pakistan, mobs burned American flags and tried to storm the U.S. Embassy but were forced back by police firing clouds of tear gas. U.S. officials braced for even more widespread anti-U.S. demonstrations after prayers Friday, the Muslim holy day.
For years, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, or OIC, a 57-member bloc of countries that seeks to guard Muslim interests around the world, has proposed a resolution criminalizing the defamation of religion.
By last year, free-speech proponents had convinced so many countries to ditch the cause that no new defamation of religion resolution was proposed. Instead, Pakistan won U.S. support for an alternative resolution on “combating intolerance;” the only speech it seeks to ban is “incitement to imminent violence.”
Now, Turkey heads the OIC and, while the group hasn’t formally announced whether it will resurrect its old initiative to criminalize defamation of religion, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said he’d bring up the topic during his allotted speaking time in New York next week.
Erdogan had no qualms laying out to journalists his view that free speech comes with boundaries. “Freedom of thought and belief ends where the freedom of thought and belief of others starts,” he said.
The issue is much broader than the Muslim world. Greece has used its blasphemy laws to bar certain displays of art, according to Freedom House, while Ireland adopted a blasphemy law in 2008. And in a headline-grabbing case, Russia last month convicted three members of the feminist punk collective Pussy Riot of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred.”
“There are Muslim, there are Christians, there are nondenominational countries that have blasphemy laws,” said Radsch of Freedom House. “It’s not about the religion of the country – it’s about the broader institutions of democracy and rule of law.”
Even in the United States, free speech is undergoing a test through lawsuits over an ad that a notoriously Islamophobic group seeks to place in the Washington and New York City subway systems. The ad reads: “In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. Support Israel. Defeat Jihad.”
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which runs New York’s subway and train systems, initially rejected the ads because they violated a prohibition on “demeaning” language. A federal judge ruled that those standards are unconstitutional; the ads should be up soon.
Meanwhile, the transit authority in Washington has resisted putting up the ads out of “a concern for public safety, given current world events,” according to news reports. A judge has given the agency two weeks to revisit its decision.