Paul Marshall of the Hudson Institute delivered a lecture in Washington D.C. on February 3rd, on “Blasphemy and Free Speech,” adapted in the February issue of Imprimis. In his lecture, Marshall warns of the threat to free speech posed by Islamic efforts to choke off religious discussion “in the name of preventing ‘defamation of’ or ‘insults to’ religion, especially Islam.”
Even while Americans enjoy the First Amendment’s protections against criminalizing criticism of Islam, Marshall says, those protections are weakened by extra-legal intimidation that leads to self-censoring. This has been especially obvious in the media:
In 2009, Yale University Press, in consultation with Yale University, removed all illustrations of Mohammed from its book by Jytte Klausen on the Danish cartoon crisis. It also removed Gustave Doré’s 19th-century illustration of Mohammed in hell from Dante’s Inferno. Yale’s formal press statement stressed the earlier refusal by American media outlets to show the cartoons, and noted that their “republication…has repeatedly resulted in violence around the world.” . . . .
Many in our media claim to be self-censoring out of sensitivity to religious feelings, but that claim is repeatedly undercut by their willingness to mock and criticize religions other than Islam. As British comedian Ben Elton observed: “The BBC will let vicar gags pass, but they would not let imam gags pass. They might pretend that it’s, you know, something to do with their moral sensibilities, but it isn’t. It’s because they’re scared.”
The second threat Marshall warns of is the Obama administration’s close cooperation with the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), formerly the Organization of the Islamic Conference. The OIC is a Saudi-based, 56-member group committed by its charter “to Combat defamation of Islam.” According to Nina Shea, director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom, the OIC’s anti-defamation philosophy was inspired by the Ayatollah Khomeini’s 1989 fatwa directing that all zealous Muslims were bound to kill Salman Rushdie. “While not explicitly embracing vigilantism,” writes Shea, the OIC “quickly endorsed Khomeini’s novel principle: that Western law should be subject to Muslim measures against apostasy and blasphemy.” (“An Anti-Blasphemy Measure Laid to Rest”). It was the OIC, for instance, who, after an initial mild and non-violent response to the publication of Mohammed cartoons in the Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten in September 2005, deliberately exploited the cartoons to rile up member states during a December 2005 conference in Saudi Arabia. The OIC got the result it wanted when “Muslims across Africa, Asia, and the Mideast set out from Friday prayers for often violent demonstrations, killing over 200 people.”
But imposing anti-blasphemy restrictions by force isn’t limited to Islamic states. As Marshall says:
Western governments have begun to give in to demands from the Saudi-based OIC and others for controls on speech. In Austria, for instance, Elisabeth Sabbaditsch-Wolf has been convicted of “denigrating religious beliefs” for her comments about Mohammed during a seminar on radical Islam. Canada’s grossly misnamed “human rights commissions” have hauled writers—including Mark Steyn, who teaches as a distinguished fellow in journalism at Hillsdale College—before tribunals to interrogate them about their writings on Islam. And in Holland and Finland, respectively, politicians Geert Wilders and Jussi Halla-aho have been prosecuted for their comments on Islam in political speeches.
Marshall properly describes as a grave threat the “the specter of cooperation between our government and the OIC to shape speech about Islam.”
The first indication of this came in President Obama’s Cairo speech in 2009, when he declared that he has a responsibility to “fight against negative stereotypes of Islam whenever they appear.” Then in July of last year in Istanbul, Secretary of State Clinton co-chaired—with the OIC—a “High-Level Meeting on Combating Religious Intolerance.” There, Mrs. Clinton announced another conference with the OIC, this one in Washington, to “exchange ideas” and discuss “implementation” measures our government might take to combat negative stereotyping of Islam. This would not restrict free speech, she said. But the mere fact of U.S. government partnership with the OIC is troublesome. Certainly it sends a dangerous signal, as suggested by the OIC’s Secretary-General, Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, when he commented in Istanbul that the Obama administration stands “united” with the OIC on speech issues.
Last March Nina Shea reported that the OIC’s decade-long effort to get the UN to pass criminal penalties for “defamation of religions” (Islam) was finally laid to rest in 2011, thanks in part to the Obama State Department’s assistance (though built upon free-speech push-backs begun during the Bush administration). Based on Shea’s article, I’m guessing credit for that course correction belongs to Hillary Clinton, not the president.
Regardless, this one victory isn’t going to force the OIC to give up on its main mission to dictate to the entire human race what we can and can’t say about Islam.
Free speech is in trouble when the current president has so weak a grasp on his constitutional prerogatives as to tell the Muslim world that he is bound to “fight negative stereotypes of Islam whenever they appear.” National security is in trouble, too, when the same commitment is applied by banning “employment of ‘stereotypes about Arabs or Muslims” from FBI counterterror training materials. (“FBI busy purging its training materials of all traces of truth about Islam and jihad”).
Please read the rest of Marshall’s Blasphemy and Free Speech.