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Free Speech Divides West Muslims

Published: 03/10/2012 08:18:56 PM GMT
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CAIRO - As world leaders are meeting in New York for the UN General Assembly, the gap between Western and Muslim perspectives on freedom of expression and insults against religions casts its shadow over this year's discussion (more)

CAIRO - As world leaders are meeting in New York for the UN General Assembly, the gap between Western and Muslim perspectives on freedom of expression and insults against religions casts its shadow over this year's discussions following a film defaming Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessing be upon him).

"This has exposed a huge fault line in political philosophies," Stewart Patrick of the nonpartisan Council on Foreign Relations told Los Angeles Times.

"It may be irreconcilable."

The annual meeting of the UN General Assembly opened in New York on Tuesday, September 25.

The meeting comes amid Muslim fury over an American-made film insulting Prophet Muhammad.

Produced by an American-Israeli real estate developer, the film portrays the Prophet as a fool, philanderer and a religious fake.

The film triggered protests in several countries around the world, which left scores of people dead, including the US ambassador in Libya.

Adding insult into injury, a French magazine published cartoons mocking the prophet, further angering Muslims.

The anti-prophet insults have triggered calls for a UN resolution criminalizing blasphemy.

"Incidents like this clearly demonstrate the urgent need on the part of states to introduce adequate protection against acts of hate crimes, hate speech, discrimination, intimidation and coercion resulting from defamation and negative stereotyping of religions, and incitement to religious hatred, as well as denigration of venerated personalities," Pakistan's ambassador Zamir Akram, speaking on behalf of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), said in a speech to the UN Human Rights Council.

He said the anti-prophet film, the burning of the Noble Qur'an and the publication of defamatory cartoons, amount to "deliberate attempts to discriminate, defame, denigrate and vilify Muslims and their beliefs".

Such acts constitute "flagrant incitement to violence" and are not protected by freedom of expression, he said.

The Pakistani diplomat stressed that Islamophobia must be acknowledged as a contemporary form of racism and be dealt with as such.

"Not to do so would be a clear example of double standards. Islamophobia has to be treated in law and practice equal to the treatment given to anti-Semitism, especially in legislations."

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But Muslim efforts to ban insults against religions on ground of freedom of expression are not expected to find support among Western leaders.

"This could justify tough crackdowns on religious minorities," Patrick said.

"This does touch on American values.... US officials have been very worried in the past that this effort would catch on."

Addressing the UN General Assembly on Tuesday, US President Barack Obama called for boosting freedom of expression.

"The strongest weapon against hateful speech is not repression, it is more speech - the voices of tolerance that rally against bigotry and blasphemy," Obama said.

Describing the anti-prophet film as “crude and disgusting”, Obama said the material is “an insult not only to Muslims, but to America as well” because it embodies intolerance.

He argued that there are countless publications that provoke offense.

“Like me, the majority of Americans are Christian, and yet we do not ban blasphemy against our most sacred beliefs," he said.

As president, "I accept that people are going to call me awful things every day. And I will always defend their right to do so."

"Now I know that not all countries in this body share this particular understanding of the protection of free speech."

Since 1999, the OIC has annually sponsored a defamation of religions resolution in the UN Human Rights Council.

The OIC wants the UN to adopt a binding international covenant against the defamation of religions.

In 2009, the UN Council adopted a non-binding resolution, proposed by Pakistan on behalf of the OIC, condemning religious defamation and calling for respect of all faiths.

Yet in March 2011, the OIC approved, under heavy pressure from the US, to set aside its 12-year campaign to have religions protected from defamation.

The OIC decision was followed by an approval from the UN Human Rights Council on a broader plan on religious tolerance.

Reproduced with permission from