10/25/2012 03:17 pm ET Updated Dec 25, 2012

Advancing Freedoms of Expression and Religion in the Islamic World

Recent articles have criticized the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) for an alleged attempt to encourage international anti-defamation/blasphemy legislation in response to the anti-Islamic film, "Innocence of Muslims." While some voices call for additional international resolutions, it is not accurate to assert that the OIC is one of them. The OIC has made great advancements in the past years to support both freedom of speech and freedom of religion.

In 2011, the OIC proposed United Nations Human Rights Council Resolution 16/18, which fundamentally changed the approach of the Organization on defamation of religion for the sake of reaching a comprehensive consensus and re-affirmed our support for the values of free speech and freedom of religion. This Human Rights Council Resolution was subsequently adopted by the United Nations General Assembly (66/167) and created a consensual basis for further cooperation. The U.S. authorities and civil society as well as respectable international human rights institutions embraced the two resolutions.

Under the leadership of Secretary General İhsanoğlu and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the OIC General Secretariat and the U.S. government worked closely to develop the Istanbul Process to highlight and implement HRC Resolution 16/18. The OIC has consistently remained firm in its support of 16/18 and its substance, despite recent events that have tested our resolve and the relevancy of the Istanbul Process.

As a matter of fact, on the sidelines of the opening week of the United Nations General Assembly in New York, the OIC co-sponsored an event with the United States Department of State and Religions for Peace where the Secretary General discussed the anti-Islamic film and the resulting violence. The Secretary General confidently stated that additional resolutions were not needed and that the international community needs to stay committed to the implementation of UN Resolutions 16/18, 66/167 and the Istanbul Process. He also underlined the importance of highlighting moderate voices in the media as opposed to deviant views of extremists. The Secretary General also emphasized the need for education on multiculturalism and democracy.

Others point to the OIC's condemnation of the anti-Islamic film as evidence of an alleged plan to undermine freedom of speech, but the OIC's statements supporting free speech and condemning violence of any kind are consistently ignored. The joint statement from the OIC Secretary General, Arab League Secretary General, African Union Commissioner for Peace and Security and the European Union High Representative for Foreign and Security policy stated that the leaders wholly support freedom of expression and believe that "Violence can have no place in our societies." We must not forget that an OIC-EU-UN joint statement issued in February 2006 when the publishing of the Danish cartoons resulted in a similar wave of violence in some OIC countries. Although again instigated by a small minority, the OIC condemned the violence and upheld freedom of speech while still expressing an understanding of the deep hurt and widespread indignation felt in the Muslim World.

Despite this support of free speech and stand against violence, many have convoluted the meaning of this recent joint statement pointing to the condemnation of "any advocacy of religious hatred that constitutes incitement to hostility and violence." While this statement denounces the use of freedom to communicate hate and inspire violent action, it does not deny freedom of speech. In fact, it communicates something that most of us have been taught since we were children: just because we can do something, does not mean that we should. Freedom of speech is and must remain a fundamental human right, but each one of us must remember that rights evolve from responsibilities. Therefore, the OIC stands against messages of hate and violence even though we recognize the United States First Amendment rights of individuals to communicate these messages. Condemnation of hate speech should be seen as part and parcel to freedom of speech. Is it not a contradiction to oppose condemnation of hate speech on the grounds of freedom of speech?

Additionally, the OIC has been criticized for statements made on behalf of the member states calling for a new United Nations resolution concerning defamation of religion. While these member states are a part of the OIC, we must remember that they also speak independently as representatives of their own countries until their positions represent the consensus of our members. Secretary General İhsanoğlu has consistently supported free speech and issued official statements to this effect. The OIC is no more responsible for the statements and laws of its members than the United Nations is responsible for the statements and laws of its individual member states.

Furthermore, the OIC has been highly involved in encouraging human rights and the development of democracy around the world, another element often overlooked by our critics. The creation of an independent and permanent human rights commission, currently led by women should be seen as the beginning of an evolution. Currently, the OIC is on the forefront of the fight for human rights in both Myanmar and Syria. We have also provided humanitarian aid to Somalis suffering from famine and draught and support for the ongoing democratic processes. In a meeting with Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mahmoud and other government officials on Monday, Professor Ihsanoglu showed his support for the new Somali leadership and encouraged democratic expansion as well as the completion of the Somali constitution. Rule of law, good governance and human rights are the fundamentals of the new OIC vision.

While recent events have allowed our critics to perpetuate a falsehood about the OIC's position on defamation, we must remember that the Organization of Islamic Cooperation has made great advances on both freedom of religion and freedom of speech. Straightforward statements from the Secretary General on the need to protect religious minorities in conflict and transformation areas and to fight all forms of religious discrimination including anti-Semitism and Christianophobia should be seen as evidences of a principled approach. When we call for the human rights of the Rohingya Muslim minority in Myanmar we should not close our eyes to the reprehensible mob attack against Buddhists in Bangladesh, nor should we raise awareness on Islamophobia and fail to condemn recent anti-Semitic attacks in France. The OIC has made great advancements in an effort to unify the international community and should be seen as a partner and an agent of positive transformation.