- The Washington Times - Monday, September 24, 2012

As the U.N. General Assembly convenes this week in New York, several leaders of mostly Muslim nations are suggesting that the world body consider sanctions on blasphemy, amid widespread protests against an amateur movie that denigrates Islam’s Prophet Muhammad.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said he will focus at least part of his remarks on the film when he addresses the U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday.

“I am the prime minister of a nation, of which most are Muslims, that has declared anti-Semitism a crime against humanity. But the West hasn’t recognized Islamophobia as a crime against humanity. It has encouraged it,” Mr. Erdogan told reporters last week.

Turkey heads the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, a body of 57 nations, which has long pushed for a U.N. resolution condemning the “defamation of religion.”

Nonbinding versions of the resolution have been adopted, but the effort was crushed last year by religious groups and human rights activists who argued that it represented a dangerous step toward an international law against free speech.

The debate has been reignited by “Innocence of Muslims,” a crudely produced film made in the United States that has sparked fury in the Muslim world. Protesters have breached the walls at U.S. embassies and desecrated American flags in sometimes violent demonstrations. A protest in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi ended with the deaths of the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton appealed Monday to Muslims to show “dignity” and not resort to violence as they protest the film, the Associated Press reported.

“Dignity does not come from avenging insults, especially with violence that can never be justified,” Mrs. Clinton said at her husband’s Clinton Global Initiative. “It comes from taking responsibility and advancing our common humanity.”

In New York on Monday, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad alluded to the film and accused the United States and others of misusing freedom of speech and of failing to speak out against the defamation of people’s beliefs and “divine prophets.”

Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, whose country boasts the world’s largest Muslim population, has condemned the film and called on “the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and the U.N. to mull over international protocol to prevent such things like this from happening again.”

Pakistan’s parliament passed a resolution condemning “Innocence of Muslims” and demanding the nation’s leaders to call on the United Nations to take action against those who made the film.

Nonbinding resolution

At least one politician has gone a step further in Egypt, where the anti-American protests were triggered after a Salafist Muslim TV network broadcast Arabic-dubbed clips of the film.

“We call for legislation or a resolution to criminalize contempt of Islam as a religion and its prophet,” Emad Abdel Ghaffour, who heads the ultra-orthodox sect’s Nour political party, told Reuters over the weekend.

Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi will address the U.N. General Assembly on Wednesday, and many are waiting to see whether he will echo Mr. Ghaffour’s remarks.

While the Nour party holds the second-largest bloc in Egyptian parliament to Mr. Morsi’s more mainstream Muslim Brotherhood, doctrinal and political differences exist between the two.

Mr. Morsi may be more likely to use his first appearance as president before the U.N. to focus on other regional issues, such as Egypt’s potential role as a mediator in Syria’s civil war.

Free-speech and human rights advocates were watching the United Nations closely in anticipation of a charged debate about free speech within the context of the “Innocence of Muslims” film.

“The behavior of an anti-Islam propagandist, as hurtful as it may be to the religious sensitivities of some Muslims, should not be used as a justification to curtail core freedoms or justify potential government repression,” said Sanjeev Bery, an advocacy director for the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International USA.

His comments echo a statement that the U.S. government issued to the U.N. in 2008, asserting that “the concept of ‘defamation of religions’ is not supported by international law.”

“There have been numerous reports that this concept is being used in some member states to justify torture, imprisonment and other forms of abuse,” said the statement, which was made after the General Assembly’s 2007 passage of a nonbinding resolution titled “Combating defamation of religions.”

The resolution stated that “everyone has the right to freedom of expression,” and put forth a wide set of conditions under which such freedom could be curtailed.

“[It] should be exercised with responsibility and may therefore be subject to limitations, according to law and necessary for respect of the rights or reputations of others; protection of national security or of public order, public health or morals; and respect for religions and beliefs,” the resolution stated.

‘The film is an excuse’

The language pitted the U.S. and much of Europe against Middle Eastern and some African and Latin American nations that had pushed for the measure and ultimately paved the way for a carefully reworded 2011 U.N. Human Rights Council Resolution that focused less on defamation and more on prohibiting discrimination.

The 2011 resolution is titled “Combating intolerance, negative stereotyping and stigmatization of, and discrimination, incitement to violence, and violence against persons based on religion or belief.”

While some conservative groups in the United States criticized the Obama administration for backing the 2011 resolution, free-speech advocates generally have embraced it.

Courtney C. Radsch, program manager for the Global Freedom of Expression Campaign at Freedom House, said the 2011 development shifted the discussion at the U.N. away “from this attempt to create an international blasphemy law and instead focused it on combating religious intolerance at the ground level.”

The problem with the earlier resolution, Ms. Radsch said, was that it equated “religious discrimination, which is a real human rights issue, with this vague concept of defamation, not to mention the issue of who decides what constitutes blasphemy or what constitutes defamation.”

She said it “remains to be seen” whether Muslim leaders will try to renew calls for a blasphemy law this week. “I think there’s a lot of talk about it because of everything that’s been happening with this video being used as an excuse to insight violence on the ground,” she said.

“The film is an excuse,” Ms. Radsch said. “The film did not incite violence. There were intermediaries who used the film as a pretext to manipulate the public and public opinion that has resulted in mass violence. But there’s no causal link between the video itself and the violence that has occurred.”

• Guy Taylor can be reached at gtaylor@washingtontimes.com.

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