Criminalizing the Criticism of Islam By Mathias Kern

The U.S. State Department recently hosted a three-day, closed-door conference in Washington, D.C. to advance a diplomatic initiative that would make it an international crime to criticize Islam.

Also known as the Istanbul Process, the initiative aims to enshrine in international law a global ban on all critical scrutiny of Islam and/or Islamic Sharia law.

The effort is being spearheaded by the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), an influential bloc of 57 Muslim countries.Based in Saudi Arabia, the OIC has been pressing the United States and the European Union for more than a decade to implement a “legally binding institutional instrument” that would impose limits on free speech and expression about Islam.

Because previous American administrations resisted OIC efforts to criminalize so-called blasphemous speech due to concerns about U.S. Constitutional guarantees of free speech, the OIC changed its strategy in early 2011.

Rather than seeking to limit speech that involves the “defamation of religion” as before, the OIC is now engaged in a multi-pronged diplomatic offensive to persuade Western democracies to curb any speech that can be viewed as “incitement to violence.”

The cornerstone of the new OIC strategy is United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC) Resolution 16/18, formally titled “Combating intolerance, negative stereotyping and stigmatization of, and discrimination, incitement to violence and violence against persons based on religion or belief.”

HRC Resolution 16/18, which would criminalize any speech that “incites violence” against others on the basis of religion (such speech is all-encompassing and ranges from cartoons depicting Mohammed to Christian sermons and literature critical of Islam) is widely viewed as a significant step forward in OIC efforts to advance the international legal concept of defaming Islam.

Resolution 16/18 was adopted at HRC headquarters in Geneva on March 24, 2011. However, the HRC resolution—as well as the OIC-sponsored Resolution 66/167, which was quietly approved by the 193-member UN General Assembly on December 19, 2011—remains ineffectual as long as it lacks strong support in the West.

The OIC therefore scored a major diplomatic coup when the Obama Administration agreed to co-sponsor the first meeting to advance Resolution 16/18 in Istanbul in July 2011, and then to host a three-day Istanbul Process conference in Washington, DC on December 12-14, 2011. By doing so, the United States gave the OIC the political legitimacy it has been seeking since 1999 to globalize its initiative to ban criticism of Islam.

Following the meeting in Istanbul, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, “We are pursuing a new approach based on concrete steps to fight intolerance wherever it occurs.”

But Muslim officials insist that although the approach has changed, the objective remains the same, namely the criminalization of criticism of Islam.

According to Pakistan’s Ambassador to the UN, Zamir Akram, the OIC will not compromise on “anything against the Koran, anything against the Prophet [Mohammed] and anything against the Muslim community in terms of discrimination.”

OIC Secretary-General Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu said that passage of Resolution 16/18 “clearly demonstrated that, as a mature international organization, the OIC was not wedded to either a particular title or the content of a resolution. We just wanted to ensure that the actual matter of vital concern and interest to OIC member states was addressed.”

He added: “The adoption of the resolution does not mark the end of the road. It rather signifies a beginning based on a new approach to deal with the whole set of interrelated issues.”

The OIC now wants to develop a legal basis for Resolution 16/18 that will “help in enacting domestic laws for the countries involved in the issue, as well as formulating international laws preventing inciting hatred resulting from the continued defamation of religions.”

The OIC is, of course, referring to countries in the West, not the Middle East; the OIC blasphemy initiative does not foresee guaranteeing the rights of Christians and Jews in the Muslim world.

Says Akram: “Resolution 16/18 was driven more by the kind of discrimination in Europe and the West in general against Muslims. I don’t think any country in the Muslim world is deliberately discriminating against minorities.”

Ihsanoglu concurs: “The Islamic faith is based on tolerance and acceptance of other religions. It does not condone discrimination of human beings on the basis of caste, creed, color, or faith.”

Now that it has secured the support of the Obama administration, the OIC is focusing its attention on the 27-member European Union, which has promised to host the next meeting of the Istanbul Process.

Many European countries lacking First Amendment protections like those in the United States have already enacted hate speech laws that effectively serve as proxies for the all-encompassing blasphemy legislation the OIC is seeking to impose on the European Union as a whole.

In Austria, for example, an appellate court recently upheld the conviction of Elisabeth Sabaditsch-Wolff, a Viennese housewife and anti-Jihad activist, for “denigrating religious beliefs” after she gave a series of seminars about the dangers of radical Islam.

Also in Austria, Susanne Winter, a politician and Member of Parliament, was convicted for the crime of saying that “in today’s system” Mohammed would be considered a “child molester,” referring to his marriage to six-year-old Aisha. Winter was also convicted of “incitement” for saying that Austria faces an “Islamic immigration tsunami.” Winters was ordered to pay a fine of €24,000 ($31,000).

In Denmark, Lars Hedegaard, a journalist and historian, was found guilty of “hate speech” for saying in a taped interview that there was a high incidence of domestic violence in areas dominated by Muslim culture.

Hedegaard’s comments violated Denmark’s infamous Article 266b of the penal code, a catch-all provision used to enforce politically correct speech codes. Although Hedegaard was ultimately acquitted by the Danish Supreme Court, it was on a legal technicality; in its ruling, the Supreme Court stressed that the substance of the charges against Hedegaard—public criticism of Islam— is still a crime punishable by imprisonment.

Also in Denmark, Jesper Langballe, a politician and Member of Parliament, was found guilty of hate speech for saying that honor killings take place in Muslim families. Langballe was denied the opportunity to prove his assertions because under Danish law it is immaterial whether a statement is true or false. All that is needed for a conviction is for someone to feel offended.

In Finland, Jussi Kristian Halla-aho, a politician and well-known political commentator, was taken to court on charges of “incitement against an ethnic group” and “breach of the sanctity of religion” for saying that Islam is a religion of pedophilia. A Helsinki court ordered Halla-aho to pay a fine for disturbing religious worship.

In France, novelist Michel Houellebecq was sued by Islamic authorities in the French cities of Paris and Lyon for calling Islam “the stupidest religion” and for saying the Koran is “badly written.”Meanwhile, the actress turned animal rights crusader Brigitte Bardot was convicted for “inciting racial hatred” after demanding that Muslims anaesthetize animals before slaughtering them.

Also France, Marie Laforêt, one of the country’s most well-known singers and actresses, was forced to defend herself in court against charges that a job advertisement she placed discriminated against Muslims.

The 72-year-old Laforêt had placed an ad on an Internet website specifying that “people with allergies or orthodox Muslims” should not apply “due to a small Chihuahua.” Laforêt claimed that she made the stipulation because she believed that Muslims view dogs as unclean animals.

The pro-Muslim group Movement against Racism and for Friendship between Peoples (MRAP) lodged a criminal complaint against Laforêt, whose lawyer said she “knew that the presence of a dog could conflict with the religious convictions of orthodox Muslims. It was a sign of respect.” Muslims rejected her defense.

In the Netherlands, Geert Wilders—the leader of the Dutch Freedom Party who had denounced the threat to Western values posed by unassimilated Muslim immigrants—was recently acquitted of five charges of inciting religious hatred against Muslims for comments he made that were critical of Islam. The landmark verdict brought to a close a highly-public, two-year legal odyssey.

Also in Holland, GregoriusNekschot, the pseudonym of a Dutch cartoonist who often mocks Dutch multiculturalism, was arrested at his home in Amsterdam for drawing cartoons deemed offensive to Muslims. Nekschot was charged for eight cartoons that “attribute negative qualities to certain groups of people,” and, as such, constitute a hate crime according to the Dutch Penal Code. Nekschot said it was the first time in 800 years of satire in the Netherlands that an artist was put in jail.

In Italy, the late OrianaFallaci, a journalist and author, was taken to court for writing that Islam “brings hate instead of love and slavery instead of freedom.” A judge in Switzerland, acting on a lawsuit brought by Islamic Center of Geneva, issued an arrest warrant for Fallaci for violations of Article 261 of the Swiss criminal code. Fallaci died of cancer just months after the start of her trial.

In the United States, the OIC is pressing the Obama administration to impose restrictions on free speech that are similar to those already in place in many European countries.

Christians in the United States and abroad should be aware that Resolution 16/18, if fully implemented, would restrict what they can say regarding Islam. This would encompass any critical examination of the beliefs or practices of Islam. If taken to its logical conclusion, it would also include the proclamation that “Jesus Christ is the Son of God,” since this is considered blasphemy within Islam.

Mathias Kern teaches international relations at the Master’s College. [1]

[1] Dave Jordan, M. E. Pulpit Magazine October 2012 Vol. 01. No. 1.


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