While you were out scavenging the Wal-Mart super sales or trying on trinkets at Tiffany and Cartier, your government has been quietly wrapping up a Christmas gift of its own: adoption of UN resolution 16/18. An initiative of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (formerly Organization of Islamic Conferences), the confederacy of 56 Islamic states, Resolution 16/18 seeks to limit speech that is viewed as “discriminatory” or which involves the “defamation of religion” – specifically that which can be viewed as “incitement to imminent violence.”
Whatever that means.
Initially proposed in response to alleged discrimination against Muslims in the aftermath of 9/11 and in an effort to clamp down on anti-Muslim attacks in non-Muslim countries, Resolution 16/18 has been through a number of revisions over the years in order to make it palatable to American representatives concerned about U.S. Constitutional guarantees of free speech. Previous versions of the Resolution, which sought to criminalize blasphemous speech and the “defamation of religion,” were regularly rejected by the American delegation and by the US State Department, which insisted that limitations on speech – even speech deemed to be racist or blasphemous – were at odds with the Constitution. But this latest version, which includes the “incitement to imminent violence” phrase – that is, which criminalizes speech which incites violence against others on the basis of religion, race, or national origin – has succeeded in winning US approval –despite the fact that it (indirectly) places limitations as well on speech considered “blasphemous.”
What’s worse, the measure codifies into the UN agenda support for the very notion democracies now wrestle with, and which threatens to destroy the very fabric of our culture: tolerance of the intolerant, or rather, the question of whether a tolerant society must also tolerate ways of life that are intolerant – that oppress women, say, or advocate violence against homosexuals, or force strangers to marry against their will. It is, in fact, this very concept that the OIC has long pressured Western governments to adopt in other ways, and that those supporting the adoption of Sharia law in the west have emphasized. Yet if we fall into that trap – as it appears we are – we will have lost the very heart of who we are.
The Good, The Bad…
Those who support the new measure rightly laud its recognition of the importance of free debate. and the inclusion of new clauses that call for “speaking out against intolerance, including advocacy of religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence” and “[fostering] religious freedom and pluralism by promoting the ability of members of all religious communities to manifest their religion, and to contribute openly and on an equal footing to society.”
What opponents (rightly) find distressing are calls to adopt “measures to criminalize incitement to imminent violence based on religion or belief.”
(Additional clauses that call for countering religious profiling are also questionable, however civil rights organizations may feel about this, given the problems of Islamic terrorism in the real world. But that’s another matter.)
Oddly, Human Rights First, which previously loudly opposed the initiative for its limitation on “blasphemous speech,” is among those who now praise the newer version. In a statement, the organization opined:
Rather than imposing new restrictions on freedom of speech, which it does not, the new consensus resolution opens the door to an action-oriented approach to fighting religious intolerance. That is very consistent with the U.S. policies and practices – combat violence, discrimination and hatred without restricting freedom of speech. Resolution 16/18 urges states to train government officials to address religious tensions, to harmonize actions at local and national level, to raise awareness of negative stereotyping of persons, to promote interfaith and intercultural dialogue, to foster religious freedom and to speak out against intolerance (among other recommendations). The only limitation on speech that is in the operative part of the resolution is incitement to “imminent violence”, which is in accordance with US law.
But others are less forgiving, noting, among other things, that the resolution does nothing to prevent the continued use of anti-Jewish materials in the schools of Saudi Arabia (where the Protocols of Zion are treated as fact, thereby absolving Saudis of charges of “racism”) or the ongoing persecution of Jews and Christians in numerous Muslim countries. And yet, ironically,it was exactly those same countries who initiated the motion, as put forth in its initial drafts by the General Assembly, with expressions of concern for “cases motivated by Islamophobia, Judeophobia, and Christanophobia.”
Indeed, as M. Zuhdi Jasser, an observant American Muslim and the founder of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy, remarked in an e-mail, “Anyone who believes that Resolution 16’18 is some kind of a breakthrough is sadly being duped by the most obvious Islamist double discourse. The shift from ‘defamation’ to ‘incitement’ does nothing at all to change the basic paradigm where Islamist nations remain in the offense, continuing to put Western, free nations on the defense.” Rather, said Jasser, “We should be putting Islamist autocracies on the defense and then simply reiterate that our First Amendment principles already protect the rights of all minorities — whether Muslim or otherwise — and that the best standard of free speech is the American one. Beginning to categorize speech as ‘incitement’ is a slippery slope that could open the floodgates for any post-tragedy analysis to indict what would otherwise be free speech absurdly as incitement in some far-fetched cause-effect analysis that would depend on proving that speech causes violence.”