Home inFocus Blasphemy, “Islamophobia,” and the Repression of Dissent

Blasphemy, “Islamophobia,” and the Repression of Dissent

Paul Marshall Winter 2007

The Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), in conjunction with the United Nations Human Rights Council, is currently seeking to rewrite international human rights standards to curtail any freedom of expression that threatens their more authoritarian members. They are attempting to use charges of “Islamophobia” and purported Western “insults to Islam” to provide international legitimacy for their suppression of their critics in the name of respect for their religion. The European response to this has been contradictory and confused.

Set Off by a Swede

Swedish artist Lars Vilks, who drew a cartoon in August 2007 depicting the Prophet Mohammed’s head on a dog’s body, is now in hiding after al-Qaeda in Iraq placed a bounty of $100,000 on his head (with a $50,000 bonus if his throat is slit). Police told him he was no longer safe at home. As was the case with the 2005 Danish Jyllands-Posten cartoons, and the knighting of Salman Rushdie, Muslim ambassadors and the OIC have not only demanded an apology from the Swedes, but are also pushing Western countries to restrict press freedom in the name of preventing “insults” to Islam.

The Iranian foreign ministry, for its part, protested to Sweden, while President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad asserted that “Zionists… an organized minority who have infiltrated the world,” were behind the affair. Pakistan complained and reemphasized its view that “the right to freedom of expression” is inconsistent with “defamation of religions and prophets.” The Turkish ministry of religious affairs called for rules specifying new limits of press freedom.

Trying to Change the Rules

A proposal for new rules came in the form of a September 14, 2007 report by Doudou Diene, United Nations Special Rapporteur on “Contemporary Forms of Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Related Intolerance.” The report stated that Articles 18, 19, and 20 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights should be reinterpreted by “adopting complementary standards on the interrelations between freedom of expression, freedom of religion, and non-discrimination.” Speaking for the OIC, Pakistani diplomat Marghoob Saleem Butt then criticized “unrestricted and disrespectful enjoyment of freedom of expression.”

The strategy behind these calls for repression of free speech and a free press go back almost a decade, but recently include an April 2005 U.N. Human Rights Commission call for “combating defamation of religions,” especially Islam. At an OIC meeting in early February 2006, 57 OIC members, following a plan devised at their December 2005 Mecca meeting, and riding the outrage over Jyllands-Posten‘s cartoons, moved that the “defamation of religions and prophets is inconsistent with the right to freedom of expression.” The U.N. Special Rapporteur on racism (whose predecessor had been summarily dismissed for referring to a document that the OIC regarded as a “blasphemy against the Koran”) was asked to investigate only “the situation of the Muslim and Arab populations.”

Europe’s Ambiguous Response

After the Danish cartoons were published by Jyllands-Posten, the European response to pressures from the Muslim world has been inconsistent, at best.

Some of the responses were strong, such as Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen’s refusal to meet with 11 ambassadors from Muslim-majority countries saying, “I won’t meet with them because it is so crystal clear what principles Danish democracy is built upon that there is no reason to do so… As prime minister I have no tool whatsoever to take actions against the media, and I don’t want that kind of tool.”

Similarly, after a Norwegian paper republished the cartoons, Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg said that the Norwegian government, “cannot apologize for what the newspapers print.” On February 20, 2006, European Commission Vice Chairman Franco Frattini declared, “There have never been, nor will there be any plans by the European Commission to have some sort of E.U. regulation, nor is there any legal basis for doing so.”

An official European Union statement on February 27 similarly reaffirmed freedom of expression. On June 28, 2006 the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe passed Resolution 1510 declaring, “freedom of expression as protected under Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights should not be further restricted to meet increasing sensitivities of certain religious groups.”

However, some E.U. officials have also waffled. On February 8, 2006, the same Frattini suggested that European media should establish a code of conduct requiring “prudence” in treatment of religion. When OIC leader Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu met on February 14, 2006, with E.U. foreign policy official Javier Solana in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, he presented the Spaniard with a list of demands. His list included: a code of conduct for the European media; a U.N.-backed media standard limiting speech that touched on “religious symbols”; Europe-wide legislation against Islamophobia via the European Parliament; and joint E.U.-OIC efforts to pass a new resolution against defamation of religions in the U.N. General Assembly. Solana concurred with the latter suggestion and characterized his conversation with Ihsanoglu as constructive.

In May 2006, the European Commission held a conference on racism that focused on Islamophobia to such an extent that the Israeli ambassador refused to attend in light of the cursory treatment given to anti-Semitism. The Parliamentary Assembly’s Resolution 1510 also resolved, “to revert to this issue on the basis of a report on legislation relating to blasphemy, religious insults, and hate speech against persons on grounds of their religion, after taking stock of the different approaches in Europe.”

European Domestic Repression

European countries have also been disowning or repressing their own citizens on grounds similar to those of “insulting Islam.” The case of Salman Rushdie is well known. He was treated as a hero when the Ayatollah Khomeini called for him to be killed after the publication of The Satanic Verses, but is now treated as something of an embarrassment. There is also Flemming Rose (cultural editor of the Jyllands-Posten and the one who commissioned the 2005 cartoons) who now requires bodyguards and has been castigated in his native Denmark. Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who fled Somalia and became a Dutch Member of Parliament and vocal critic of radical Islam, has had to leave the Netherlands for security reasons, and the Dutch government has made plain that they really don’t want her back.

As long ago as 1991, French civil servant Jean-Claude Barreau, in charge of integrating immigrants, was sacked for writing a book questioning the “golden legend” of the “great Islamic civilization.” He pointed out that similar criticism of Christianity would never have led to dismissal. In 1992, Mohamed Rasoel, a Pakistani immigrant, was convicted of “racism” by a Dutch court for a book he authored. The judge decided that he had made “unjustified generalizations” by contrasting “soft Dutchmen” with “crude, cruel, corrupt, and bloodthirsty Muslims.”

Traditionalist Catholic bishop Marcel Lefebvre was fined 5,000 French francs for a “racist” statement that when Muslims become stronger, “it is your wives, your daughters, your children who will be kidnapped and dragged off to a certain kind of places as they exist in Casablanca [sic].” Actress Brigitte Bardot was fined twice for comparing Muslim settlement in France to the Nazi occupation. Author Oriana Fallaci was on trial for blasphemy in Italy at the time of her death.

Insulting Islam Must Be Allowed

Repressive laws, supplemented and reinforced by terrorists, vigilantes, and mob violence, are a fundamental barrier to open discussion and dissent, democracy, and free societies in Europe. When politics and religion are intertwined, there can be no political freedom without religious freedom, including the right to criticize religious ideas. Hence, removing legal bans on blasphemy and “insulting Islam” is vital to protecting an open debate. If, in the name of false tolerance and religious sensitivity, free nations in Europe and beyond do not firmly condemn and resist these totalitarian strictures at home and abroad, we will condemn reformist Muslims to silence behind what U.S. Senator Joseph Lieberman aptly termed a “theological iron curtain.”

Authoritarian regimes are now avidly pursuing their next opportunity within the U.N. to attack freedom of speech, press, and religion. In a follow-up to the notorious 2001 U.N. conference “against racism” in Durban, the preparatory committee of the 2009 U.N. World Conference Against Racism, on which Iran and Pakistan sit (it is chaired by Libya), has said that it wants to make “religious defamation” and “Islamophobia” part of the agenda. If this agenda is not explicitly and actively resisted we will see not only further censorship and self-censorship in the West, but increased repression in the Muslim world.

Paul Marshall is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom and is writing a book on blasphemy. Portions of this article were originally published in washingtonpost.com’s Think Tank Town.