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