Co-authored by Jacob Mchangama and Aaron Rhodes.
In his maiden speech before the United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 26, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi struck out against the freedom of expression as a universal principle. Freedom of expression cannot include the criticism or ridicule of Islam; it must be "responsible." Morsi's position would make the freedom of speech subject to any number of subjective tests, and typifies the approach of authoritarian rulers who equate criticism of state religions with threats to the stability of the state. The speech was warmly received.
Many in liberal democracies fear their fundamental human right to freedom of expression may be threatened by calls from the largest bloc of states in the United Nations -- the Organization of Islamic Cooperation -- to criminalize criticism of religion, and particularly given weak responses to such calls by Western leaders, their fears are justified. While pressure on freedom of expression is increasing even in the West this freedom is still mostly secure in Western states. That is because such freedom exists and will allow citizens to take steps to protect infringements on their human rights.
But those who have the most to lose should the international community back further away from freedom of speech and religion are Muslims and religious minorities in Muslim-majority societies like Egypt, Pakistan and Iran. The weakening of international human rights guarantees protecting these freedoms would deprive them of clear standards and the small leverage on their governments such standards afford. Freedom of expression is the primary means by which, through peaceful dialogue in civil society, Muslims in such states can work together toward reducing the international threat of Islamist extremism. Freedom of expression is one of the antidotes to the devastating domestic consequences of increasing radicalism, including inhumane punishments by unfair courts, the relegation of women and girls to inferior and vulnerable positions in society, discrimination against dissenters and minorities, and wide-ranging forms of repression in many areas of public and private life.
International standards protecting the freedom of expression and religion are commonly ignored and willfully abused by many governments. In Iran, clerics proclaiming the compatibility of Islam and secular government have been imprisoned and ill-treated. In Pakistan, the Ahmadiyya Muslim minority is legally precluded from calling themselves Muslims and its members are liable to criminal sanctions if they express their faith in public. When this clear instance of religious discrimination was challenged before the Supreme Court of Pakistan, a majority of its justices held that the discrimination was lawful since the government would be unable to guarantee Ahmadiyyas' "life, liberty and property." If, the Court held, a "permission is given to a procession or assembly, on the streets or a public place, it is like permitting civil war." Rather than protect a religious minority from an often hostile and sometimes violent majority, the Supreme Court abused human rights provisions to provide extremist radicals with a terrorist's veto.
This sad state of affairs is not unique to Muslim majority states. A law under consideration by the Russian Duma would outlaw "insults to religions." Its sponsors have spoken of threats to the stability of the state represented by attacks on Russian Orthodox symbols. The proposed law transparently aims to protect the Church from competition for its market share of believers, which, if diminished, would have political consequences for the current regime.
In this respect, Russia is following the sultanate political model under which many millions of Muslims live. Their leaders, speaking for them, claim their subjects accept and support harsh and comprehensive religiously based restrictions and the strict diet of ideological propaganda and conspiracy theories they are incessantly fed by state-controlled media.
The Arab Spring has shown a different story. Defying efforts to muzzle their expressions, and dying on the streets by the hundreds, Muslims have shown the world, and themselves, that they have diverse religious and political orientations.
But it is an unfinished story, and one that may end in tragedy if the international community fails to uphold liberal principles, principles citizens of liberal democracies too often are afraid to defend when intertwined with conflicting religious or cultural sensibilities.
Those who seek to monopolize authority in their own societies are likely not deeply outraged by cheap videos now given international renown before the United Nations General Assembly. What they fear is freedom in their own back yards that would lead to public questions about their pretentions to domination. The effort to institutionalize restrictions on speech and specifically on criticism of Islam on the international level is at its heart an effort to shut down dialogue and political participation in Muslim states, and once again smother individual rights under myths of religious unity.
In Egypt, the new draft constitution aims to entrench what researcher Amr Abdulrahman calls "a particular version of Islam." As under Mubarak, the state would retain is "guardianship of conscience" by restrictions on freedom of belief. The freedom of Egyptians to speak, organize, and to establish an open political space appropriate to encompass their diverse views is hanging in the balance.
President Mohamed Morsi has stated clearly that he expects Western societies to change in order to accommodate to his particular version of Islam's inability to deal with speech protected by international treaties and national constitutions.
That would mean an end to international pressure to give Egyptians the freedom of expression and the hope of a secure society where their differences would result in dialogue rather than violence. Not only the people of Egypt, but also those of Libya, Pakistan, Yemen, Tunisia and other Muslim states need, more than anything, confidence that their openly expressed views will not be met with censorship, state violence or terror.
Those freedoms would not necessarily threaten Morsi's government as long as he honored them. Perhaps while in New York, Morsi will visit neighborhoods where Muslims live peacefully side by side with Orthodox Jews, Catholics and atheists. Perhaps he might understand that in such a society, his government could enjoy support from all citizens whose freedom of expression and religion is protected.
Jacob Mchangama is Director of Legal Affairs at the Danish think-tank CEPOS, and an external lecturer in international human rights law at the University of Copenhagen. Aaron Rhodes was Executive Director of the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights (1993-2007) and helped found the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran in 2008. They are both co-founders of the Freedom Rights Project.