The reality of freedom of expression in the Muslim world

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Sponsored by the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, United Nations Resolution 16/18 is a statement of great international compromise. The OIC, which had historically supported anti-defamation legislation, fundamentally changed its position on defamation of religion. We moved away from the anti-defamation language of the previous OIC sponsored resolutions to a clearer acceptance of freedom of expression and focused on upholding the rights of the individuals against discrimination in an effort to foster international cooperation. Using much of the United States First Amendment language, Resolution 16/18 promotes respect for and protection of the individual rights of all people. Now, in the aftermath of a provocative film produced by ignorant minorities and the violent reactions of a small group of extremists, Resolution 16/18 is even more significant in guiding the political, religious, and international response.

Resolution 16/18 is a symbol of mutual understanding produced by many years of behind the scenes discussions surrounding this sensitive and divisive issue. In an effort to continue this dialogue, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and the Secretary General of the OIC Professor Ihsanoglu partnered to develop a long-term plan concerning free speech and religion. Recognizing that misperceptions would not be resolved by a single resolution and that the current international division was not productive, Secretary Clinton and Professor Ihsanoglu established the Istanbul Process to implement the measures put in place by Resolution 16/18 and provide a unified message to the international community.

While opponents to this legislation have continuously criticized the US-OIC partnership as covertly limiting freedom of speech, Resolution 16/18 and the Istanbul Process have garnered support from the Human Rights First and Freedom House. Both of these organizations have been vocal in their opposition to anti-defamation laws and independently reported that the new resolution was a great improvement upon previous legislation. Additionally, much of the OIC’s language has been used in other UN resolutions such as Resolution 66/167 and 66/168 with the support of the United States and the European Union.

Much progress has been made in furthering freedom of speech in the international realm, but the First Amendment rights of the United States are still not the norm around the world. While these rights are well respected internationally, many parts of the world are at different points in their development of human rights and have various interpretations of these rights. For instance, the United States and the European Union have many differences in how they combat hate crimes, religious insult, incitement, and defamation. Some countries within the European Union even have blasphemy laws.

Freedom of speech is an ideal for all humanity. However not every country and region as progressed as the US in terms of its absolute enjoyment. Forcibly demanding freedom of speech instead of providing education and encouragement of fundamental human rights will only exasperate the present conflict and cause many to balk at the acceptance of First Amendment rights.

President Obama and Secretary Clinton have provided a balanced approach by both condemning expressions of religious hatred and defending freedom of expression. Without an ethical response to statements of hatred and violence, outright defense of the First Amendment may not lead to a better understanding and appreciation of the First Amendment in different parts of the world. This response against statements of hate does not attempt to limit free speech, but asks us all to accept the responsibilities that come with our rights. Just because we can do something, does not always mean that we should.

With the current compromises in international legislation and the partnership between the United States and the OIC, new resolutions on freedom of speech and religion are not needed. International actors need to take this opportunity to implement the measures already in place under Resolution 16/18 and the Istanbul Process. Only by working towards understanding, compassion, and consideration of every individual’s rights to dignity and respect can we move forward.

Gokcen is the permanent representative of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation to the United Nations. Prior to his current position, Ambassador Gokcen served as political advisor to the secretary general of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation.