Perhaps in an effort to rehabilitate the United States’ image in the Muslim world, the Obama administration has joined a U.N. effort to restrict religious speech. This country should never sacrifice freedom of expression on the altar of religion.
Around the world, free speech is being sacrificed on the altar of religion. Whether defined as hate speech, discrimination or simple blasphemy, governments are declaring unlimited free speech as the enemy of freedom of religion. This growing movement has reached the United Nations, where religiously conservative countries received a boost in their campaign to pass an international blasphemy law. It came from the most unlikely of places: the United States.
While attracting surprisingly little attention, the Obama administration supported the effort of largely Muslim nations in the U.N. Human Rights Council to recognize exceptions to free speech for any “negative racial and religious stereotyping.” The exception was made as part of a resolution supporting free speech that passed this month, but it is the exception, not the rule that worries civil libertarians. Though the resolution was passed unanimously, European and developing countries made it clear that they remain at odds on the issue of protecting religions from criticism. It is viewed as a transparent bid to appeal to the “Muslim street” and our Arab allies, with the administration seeking greater coexistence through the curtailment of objectionable speech. Though it has no direct enforcement (and is weaker than earlier versions), it is still viewed as a victory for those who sought to juxtapose and balance the rights of speech and religion.
A ‘misused’ freedom?In the resolution, the administration aligned itself with Egypt, which has long been criticized for prosecuting artists, activists and journalists for insulting Islam. For example, Egypt recently banned a journal that published respected poet Helmi Salem merely because one of his poems compared God to a villager who feeds ducks and milks cows. The Egyptian ambassador to the U.N., Hisham Badr, wasted no time in heralding the new consensus with the U.S. that “freedom of expression has been sometimes misused” and showing that the “true nature of this right” must yield government limitations.
His U.S. counterpart, Douglas Griffiths, heralded “this joint project with Egypt” and supported the resolution to achieve “tolerance and the dignity of all human beings.” While not expressly endorsing blasphemy prosecutions, the administration departed from other Western allies in supporting efforts to balance free speech against the protecting of religious groups.
Thinly disguised blasphemy laws are often defended as necessary to protect the ideals of tolerance and pluralism. They ignore the fact that the laws achieve tolerance through the ultimate act of intolerance: criminalizing the ability of some individuals to denounce sacred or sensitive values. We do not need free speech to protect popular thoughts or popular people. It is designed to protect those who challenge the majority and its institutions. Criticism of religion is the very measure of the guarantee of free speech — the literal sacred institution of society.
Blasphemy prosecutions in the West appear to have increased after the riots by Muslims following the publication of cartoons disrespecting prophet Mohammed in Denmark in 2005. Rioters killed Christians, burned churches and called for the execution of the cartoonists. While Western countries publicly defended free speech, some quietly moved to deter those who’d cause further controversies through unpopular speech.
In Britain, it is a crime to “abuse” or “threaten” a religion under the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006. A 15-year-old boy was charged last year for holding up a sign outside a Scientology building declaring, “Scientology is not a religion, it is a dangerous cult. “In France, famed actress Brigitte Bardot was convicted for saying in 2006 that Muslims were ruining France in a letter to then-Interior Minister (and now President) Nicolas Sarkozy. This year, Ireland joined this self-destructive trend with a blasphemy law that calls for the prosecution of anyone who writes or utters views deemed “grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters held sacred by any religion, thereby causing outrage among a substantial number of the adherents of that religion; and he or she intends, by the publication of the matter concerned, to cause such outrage.”
‘Blasphemy’ incidentsConsider just a few such Western “blasphemy” cases in the past two years:
• In Holland, Dutch prosecutors arrested cartoonist Gregorius Nekschot for insulting Christians and Muslims with cartoons, including one that caricatured a Christian fundamentalist and a Muslim fundamentalist as zombies who want to marry and attend gay rallies.
• In Canada, the Alberta human rights commission punished the Rev. Stephen Boission and the Concerned Christian Coalition for anti-gay speech, not only awarding damages but also censuring future speech that the commission deems inappropriate.
• In Italy, comedian Sabina Guzzanti was put under criminal investigation for joking at a rally that “in 20 years, the pope will be where he ought to be — in hell, tormented by great big poofter (gay) devils, and very active ones.”
• In London, an aide to British Foreign Secretary David Miliband was arrested for “inciting religious hatred” at his gym by shouting obscenities about Jews while watching news reports of Israel’s bombardment of Gaza.Also, Dutch politician Geert Wilders was barred from entering Britain as a “threat to public policy, public security or public health” because he made a movie describing the Quran as a “fascist” book and Islam as a violent religion.
• In Poland, Catholic magazine Gosc Niedzielny was fined $11,000 for inciting “contempt, hostility and malice“by comparing the abortion of a woman to the medical experiments at Auschwitz.
The “blasphemy” cases include the prosecution of writers for calling Mohammed a “pedophile” because of his marriage to 6-year-old Aisha (which was consummated when she was 9). A far-right legislator in Austria, a publisher in India and a city councilman in Finland have been prosecuted for repeating this view of the historical record.
In the flipside of the cartoon controversy, Dutch prosecutors this year have brought charges against the Arab European League for a cartoon questioning the Holocaust.
What’s next?Private companies and institutions are following suit in what could be seen as responding to the Egyptian-U.S. call for greater “responsibility” in controlling speech. For example, in an act of unprecedented cowardice and self-censorship, Yale University Press published The Cartoons That Shook the World, a book by Jytte Klausen on the original Mohammed cartoons. Yale, however, (over Klausen’s objections) cut the actual pictures of the cartoons. It was akin to publishing a book on the Sistine Chapel while barring any images of the paintings.
The public and private curtailment on religious criticism threatens religious and secular speakers alike. However, the fear is that, when speech becomes sacrilegious, only the religious will have true free speech. It is a danger that has become all the more real after the decision of the Obama administration to join in the effort to craft a new faith-based speech standard. It is now up to Congress and the public to be heard before the world leaves free speech with little more than a hope and a prayer.
Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University and a member of USA TODAY’s board of contributors.
(Illustration by Alejandro Gonzalez, USA TODAY.)