At U.N., Muslim world questions Western freedom of speech

UNITED NATIONS Fri Sep 28, 2012 11:13pm EDT

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu addresses the 67th United Nations General Assembly at the U.N. Headquarters in New York, September 28, 2012. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu addresses the 67th United Nations General Assembly at the U.N. Headquarters in New York, September 28, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Brendan McDermid

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UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - Muslim leaders were in unison at the United Nations this week arguing that the West was hiding behind its defense of freedom of speech and ignoring cultural sensitivities in the aftermath of anti-Islam slurs that have raised fears of a widening East-West cultural divide.

A video made in California depicting the Prophet Mohammad as a fool sparked the storming of U.S. and other Western embassies in many Islamic countries and a deadly suicide bombing in Afghanistan this month. The crisis deepened when a French magazine published caricatures of the Prophet.

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said it was time to put an end to the protection of Islamophobia masquerading as the freedom to speak freely.

"Unfortunately, Islamophobia has also become a new form of racism like anti-Semitism. It can no longer be tolerated under the guise of freedom of expression. Freedom does not mean anarchy," he told the 193-nation U.N. General Assembly on Friday.

Egypt's newly elected Islamist president, Mohamed Mursi, voiced similar sentiments in his speech on Wednesday.

"Egypt respects freedom of expression, freedom of expression that is not used to incite hatred against anyone," he said. "We expect from others, as they expect from us, that they respect our cultural specifics and religious references, and not impose concepts or cultures that are unacceptable to us."

Mursi was one of the first leaders to be democratically elected after Arab Spring revolutions that led to changes in the governments of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen last year.

Western states that backed the uprisings have urged these countries to quickly foster democratic reforms and adhere stringently to human rights principles and basic freedoms.

They fear a more austere version of Islam could hijack the protest movements. Most Western speakers at the United Nation defended freedom of speech, but shied away from calls by Muslim leaders for an international ban on blasphemy.

While repeating his condemnations of the video, U.S. President Barack Obama staunchly defended free speech, riling some of those leaders.

"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 in a 30-minute speech dominated by this theme.


Speaking after Obama, President Asif Ali Zardari of Pakistan, where more than a dozen people were killed in protests against the anti-Islam film, demanded insults to religion be criminalized.

"The international community must not become silent observers and should criminalize such acts that destroy the peace of the world and endanger world security by misusing freedom of expression," he said.

Highlighting the anger of some, about 150 protesters demanded "justice" and chanted "there is no god but Allah" outside the U.N. building on Thursday. One placard read: "Blaspheming my Prophet must be made a crime at the U.N."

Foreign ministers from the 57-member Organization of Islamic Cooperation met on Friday. The film topped the agenda.

"This incident demonstrates the serious consequences of abusing the principle of freedom of expression on one side and the freedom of demonstration on the other side," OIC Secretary-General Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu told reporters.

Human Rights First and Muslim Public Affairs Council, two U.S.-based advocacy groups, warned of the risks of regulating such freedoms.

"Countless incidents show that when governments or religious movements seek to punish offences in the name of combating religious bigotry, violence then ensues and real violations of human rights are perpetrated against targeted individuals," they said in a joint statement.

The 47-member U.N. Human Rights Council, dominated by developing states, has passed non-binding resolutions against defamation of religion for over a decade. Similar ones were endorsed in the U.N. General Assembly.

European countries, the United States and several Latin American nations in the council opposed the resolutions, arguing that while individual people have human rights, religions do not, and that existing U.N. pacts - if enforced - were sufficient to curb incitement to hatred and violence.

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle attempted to dampen talk of a clash of civilizations on Thursday.

"Some would have us believe that the burning embassy buildings are proof of a clash of civilizations," Westerwelle said in his U.N. address. "We must not allow ourselves to be deluded by such arguments. This is not a clash of civilizations. It is a clash within civilizations. It is also a struggle for the soul of the movement for change in the Arab world."

(Editing by Mohammad Zargham)

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Comments (10)
Penguiniator wrote:
So, speaking freely is anarchy, but burning embassies and murdering diplomats: that’s law and order. Got it.

Sep 28, 2012 12:30am EDT  --  Report as abuse
paintcan wrote:
Marx once called religion the opiate of the masses. Marxists were not the only people who think like that actually. The sciences and many philosophies are not about promulgating religious opinion, as examples.

This representative of the Arab world is into mandatory “opiate” use. He is also asking for control of a society’s speech and thoughts that could make far more problems then they ever manage to solve.

It is one thing to ask for responsible speech but another to wrap the world in global censorship. Even if all people were pious and had a religious point of view it is going to be difficult to avoid the subject. They do not all agree on matters of faith or dogma or practice. They all have their opinions on what is considered acceptable religious practices and they differ enormously. Does the “responsible” person simply not notice that fact?

I recently volunteered to participate in an advisory body to a small subsection of the Town government (a village district) and was directed to take an oath of office for a position that was not an officer and was required to observe a minute of silence for the “war dead”. I am not sure yet that the Town itself requires these actions on the part of unelected and unofficial participants whose only purpose (that was not very well defined at all) was to write a master plan governing land use. That is where the elected reps should have spent far more time getting their acts together instead of dressing themselves in a pseudo sacred atmosphere. I took the oath without many qualms at the time and started to think about it later.

I went to two meetings and have since resigned because I was convinced the group met to flatter it own sense of self importance and had no clear idea about that they were doing but were bound and determined to do it anyway.

The moment of silence is very nearly a religious observance. And for representatives of religions/states, where politicians and religious leaders can sometimes hold the same offices, is to try to impose an etiquette against criticism that is grossly unfair to others who may have no religious opinions or have different ones. I could very easily have said to them in that district office that those men and women died, get over it and move on. The moment of silence presumes they have a reason to be remembered at all. It was a job and they died doing it. The officials didn’t ask for a moment of silence for fireman, police, rescue workers, or even private citizens who died in the name of doing – what? In other words – what deaths deserve official remembrance and what don’t?

The responsibility for riots in the name of an insult or perceived insult is the fault of the rioters. And no other excuses or blame is acceptable or even practical. It was a charming idea but it is not required by law in this state and only in this country for certain high officials. Those people are expected to fulfill positions of trust but they are not religious in character. If they move too close to religious issues they find them selves in very deep and treacherous waters.

The representative arguably presumes to speak for all the Arab world asks for protections against speech in the name of a very illusory “US” and also in the name of people who may have very little interest in religious teachings than that it preserves their own comport levels or is a familiar scam for them. Some may have feelings that are seriously offended and others may only pretend offense. Many simply do not what to think about what they do not want to think about and would be very satisfied if no one else had the ability to remind them of that fact.

Sep 29, 2012 4:40pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
ertdfg wrote:
So Egypt will use their laws to react to any offense, mockery, or attack on Coptic Christians?

Oh, not THAT religion, or any other except Islam gets the freedom from offense… gotcha.

Well as long as you apply your laws unfairly, unequally, and in a manner to only benefit one group of people I’m sure that’s really impressive.

Sep 29, 2012 9:28pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
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