It’s about time. After a week of anti-American violence in the Muslim world over a video that offends Islam, President Obama finally made a rousing defense of free speech, even if it insults religion.
Following the outburst of outrage in Libya and Egypt, American officials repeatedly deplored the video. There should have been more U.S. outrage over a campaign of violence orchestrated by Islamists and abetted by some Muslim leaders.
In his annual address to the U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday, Obama went a good ways toward setting the record straight.
“We do not ban blasphemy against our most sacred beliefs,” Obama said. “Americans have fought and died around the globe to protect the right of all people to express their views — even views we disagree with.
“We do so,” he went on, “because in a diverse society, efforts to restrict speech can become a tool to silence critics or oppress minorities.” He added, “On this we must agree: There is no speech that justifies mindless violence.”
Sadly, this is a message key Muslim leaders haven’t grasped.
Indeed, both Egypt and Pakistan, the two countries where the most widespread violence was incited in the name of the anti-Islam video, have blasphemy laws that are frequently used to pursue vendettas, target minorities, and curb free speech.
Yet in Pakistan, where the notorious law is most draconian, Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf has called on the United Nations to adopt blasphemy laws outlawing criticism of religion worldwide. He’d do better to confront the disastrous impact of Pakistan’s blasphemy law at home.
Just recently, a 14-year-old mentally impaired Christian Pakistani girl, Rimsha Masih, was imprisoned after being accused by a neighbor of burning pages of a children’s religious book. It turned out that a village cleric who wanted to drive Christians out of the village had fabricated evidence. The case became so notorious, the charges may ultimately be dropped. But about 600 of her Christian neighbors had to flee out of fear of reprisals, and she probably can’t ever go home lest vigilantes kill her.
Indeed, the governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, and Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian, were killed last year after criticizing the apostasy law in another case involving a poor Christian woman who is still rotting in prison. “Anyone can file a complaint, so there are often ulterior motives for bringing charges,” says the Hudson Institute’s Nina Shea, co-author of “Silenced: How Apostasy and Blasphemy Codes Are Choking Freedom Worldwide.”
Shea says thousands of such cases have been brought since the 1980s. Since Islam covers most issues of ordinary life, apostasy charges can be brought for innumerable reasons, including personal quarrels; the accused can’t get bail and may receive the death sentence.
In one notorious case in 2000, a medical professor in Islamabad offended a Pakistani military officer with something he said in a lecture and was suddenly accused of blasphemy. After being held for more than three years, he was finally released, perhaps because he became an Amnesty International prisoner of conscience. Many others aren’t so lucky.
“The law empowers extremists within the society,” says Shea. Adds the courageous Pakistani parliamentarian Farahnaz Ispahani: “Government after Pakistani government has appeased the extremists, who use the blasphemy laws to stir up the public and enhance their own political power.”
Blasphemy laws also threaten to muzzle speech in post-Arab Spring governments, especially those where Islamic parties hold power. In Egypt, the actor Adel Imam was cleared of defaming Islam on Sept. 12, the day after the anti-video protests started. His alleged crimes: his film roles, including one in which he played a corrupt businessman that contained a scene parodying bearded Muslim men, and a second, called Terrorism and Kebab, in which good-hearted Egyptians challenge corrupt bureaucrats. If he hadn’t been so famous, he might be doing time.
Earlier this year, two courts rejected blasphemy cases against a Christian media mogul who had formed the leading opposition party. His alleged crime: He tweeted a cartoon of Mickey Mouse with a beard and Minnie with a veil.
This might seem funny if it weren’t so serious. Egypt’s new president, Mohammed Morsi, who hails from the Muslim Brotherhood, clearly has a limited understanding of free speech. He just instructed his Washington embassy to bring legal charges against the California videomaker and may be indifferent to the dangers of blasphemy laws.
In the words of the late, great Indonesian Muslim scholar and political leader Abdurrahman Wahid, blasphemy laws “narrow the bounds of acceptable discourse in the Islamic world and prevent most Muslims from thinking ‘outside the box,’ not only about religion but also about vast spheres of life, literature, science, and culture in general.”
Even more to the point, attempts by the Organization of the Islamic Conference, or any U.N. bodies, to promote a legally binding global ban on criticism of Islam (or all religions) are out of order. They should be roundly opposed by Obama and other Western leaders. Advocates of one religion can’t put a muzzle on free speech worldwide.
As Obama said Tuesday, “The strongest weapon against hateful speech is not repression, it is more speech — the voices of tolerance that rally against bigotry and blasphemy, and lift up the values of understanding and mutual respect.”
Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Readers may write to her at Philadelphia Inquirer, P.O. Box 8263, Philadelphia, Pa. 19101, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.