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Penalizing Criticism of Islam Threatens Free Speech and Reforms

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Professor Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, the eminent Turkish Secretary General of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) was recently welcomed in Europe, the U.S. and Australia.

However, this organization has an agenda to criminalize criticism of Islam, which threatens to strangle dissent and reform.

Established in 1969 and based in Saudi Arabia, the OIC represents 57 member states with sizeable Muslim populations, and wields considerable influence in the U.N.

Professor Ihsanoglu believes "no one has the right to insult another for their beliefs" but does it follow that insults should be criminalized?

Although the OIC does not define offensive speech, the policies and practices of member states are instructive. Muslims wishing to give up Islam are branded apostates, often with dire penalties. Ahmadis and Baha'is are persecuted as "insulters" of Islam. Saudi journalist Najeeb Kashgari was recently charged with apostasy following three tweets considered heretical by Saudi clerics. He fled the country, but was arrested in Malaysia on the way to New Zealand and extradited. Christian Egyptian Naguib Sawiris faces trial for insulting Islam, after tweeting images of a bearded Mickey Mouse and veiled Minnie Mouse.

In 2007, Egyptian blogger Kareem Amer was jailed for articles criticizing Al-Azhar university and calling then president Hosni Mubarak a dictator. He was sentenced to three years in prison for "contempt of religion" and one year for "defaming the President of Egypt." Liberal Egyptian theology professor Nasr Abu Zayd was declared an apostate and ordered to divorce his Muslim wife. Both fled to the Netherlands.

Since President Zia-ul-Haq instigated the death penalty for blasphemy in 1986, more than a thousand cases were registered in Pakistan. There were no authorized executions but Islamist vigilantes killed some of the accused. In January 2011, Salmaan Taseer, the Muslim governor of Punjab, was murdered by his bodyguard for opposing capital punishment for insulting Islam and also defending Christian Pakistani woman Asia Bibi against a blasphemy charge. Taseer's killer received widespread support. Shahbaz Bhatti, Pakistan's Minorities Minister and a Christian, was killed in March 2011 for opposing the blasphemy laws.

Earlier attacks on free speech have included the fatwa against Salman Rushdie, the murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh, and the bloody riots associated with the Cartoon Intifada in 2005.

Since 1999, resolutions on defamation of religions have been introduced repeatedly on behalf of the OIC in the UN Human Rights Council, and from 2005, in the UN General Assembly. These were aimed at making criticism of Islam an international crime. Limitations on freedom of speech were already manifest in 1990, when the OIC adopted the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam, which declared, in Article 22, that everyone had the right to free speech as long as it was not contrary to sharia (Islamic law).

The European Centre for Law and Justice and Women Living Under Muslim Laws have asserted that defamation of religion is an invalid concept according to international standards that protect individuals rather than religions and beliefs.

The concept is also contrary to Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that states: "Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression."

In October 2008, The Venice Commission of the Council of Europe determined that the offence of blasphemy be eliminated, and insult to religious feelings not criminalized without incitement to hatred as an essential component.

Defamation was reworked as incitement to discrimination, at the U.N. World Conference against Racism (Durban II) in April 2009. In their 4th Annual Report on Islamophobia in April 2011, the OIC defined incitement by applying the "test of consequences," so that criminal liability only fell on the instigators and not on the responders. In this way, any perceived provocation, insult or "defamation" could be penalized on the grounds that it led to incitement.

The circular argument was ignored in December 2011, when a State department conference entitled "The Istanbul Process" adopted Resolution 16/18 of March 2011. The resolution, which combated discrimination and incitement to violence against individuals based on religion, was still compatible with the OIC's aim to criminalize criticism of Islam. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described it as a breakthrough for free expression and religious tolerance. The endorsement might have been instrumental in giving the Director General of the OIC a stamp of approval for a noncontroversial tour of the West, and the platform to launch a campaign against Islamophobia linked to criticism of Islam.

Pressure to criminalize criticism of Islam was observed in the U.K., with attempts, particularly by the Muslim Council of Britain, to include a clause on Incitement to Religious Hatred in the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act, 2001, and again in the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act, 2005. Both were dropped after opposition in the House of Lords. The law would have made criticism or jokes about Islam illegal. The government reintroduced the clause as the Racial and Religious Hatred Act, 2005. This was amended in the Lords, opposed by the government in the Commons, but in January 2006, the amended clause was passed by one vote.

Several European countries, including France, Germany, Austria, Italy, Sweden and the Netherlands, have implemented laws to prosecute people for "vilifying" Islam. In a recent case, Elisabeth Sabaditsch-Wolff, an Austrian activist, presented three lectures considered critical of Islam and was convicted of "denigrating religious symbols of a recognized religious group."

Restrictions to free speech could seriously impact Islamic reformers who campaign against gender discrimination. Secular feminist activists, including Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Wafa Sultan and Taslima Nasreen, and practising Muslims like Shirin Ebadi and Raheel Raza have already suffered abuse and death threats.

In the Islamist sweep of the Arab Spring, the Middle East provides fertile ground for restrictions on free speech. Turkey is also becoming Islamized and journalists have experienced increasing intimidation and imprisonment for criticizing the government. Recently the European Court of Human Rights ruled against a Turkish court that had sentenced journalist Erbil Tusalp to pay compensation to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Tusalp had written two satirical articles deemed critical of the Prime Minister.

If the OIC were serious about combating discrimination based on religion, they could start with opposition to male guardianship of women, unilateral divorce, a woman's testimony counting for half that of a man's, stoning to death for adultery, lashing sentences for homosexuality and sex outside marriage, and growing persecution of Christian minorities in the Middle East.

A version of this article was originally published in The Australian.