10/10/2012 05:00 pm ET Updated Dec 10, 2012

Blasphemy Bans Threaten Reform

The recent wave of worldwide protests and riots against an anti-Islamic online video "Innocence of Muslims," attests to the inflammatory potential of blasphemy accusations in the Muslim world. In the process, the Muslim reform movement, especially women's reform, is an overlooked casualty, easily lost in the outrage and confusion.

A tiny fraction of Muslims took part in the riots, and the violence was widely condemned by leaders. However, criminalization of blasphemy is not a contentious issue for mainstream Islam. Although the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia condemned the murderous attacks against Western embassies and diplomats, and warned of a backlash, he also demanded the prosecution of those who abuse religious prophets. In Egypt, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Dr. Ahmed el-Tayyeb, called for a U.N. resolution to ban religious insults.

Few political or religious leaders have laid any blame on the instigator of the protests. Salafist Sheikh Khalid Abdullah, an Egyptian talk show host, incited the rage with his two-hour program on the YouTube video on Sept. 8. Released on June 1, the film had been largely ignored in the intervening three months.

At the heart of the debate there is a stand off between two opposing and seemingly irreconcilable views regarding blasphemy. In traditional Islam, offensive language or criticism is viewed as hate speech that deserves to be criminalized, as opposed to the Western view that religious concepts are fair game and any perceived criticism or defamation should be tolerated as freedom of expression.

Many Muslim countries favor the prosecution of those who criticize or "insult" Islam. In Pakistan, politicians SalmanTaseer and Shahbaz Bhatti were murdered by Islamists for opposing blasphemy laws.

Even tweeting can be dangerous. Turkish pianist Fazil Say will face trial for Twitter posts that joked about Islamic views of the afterlife, and Saudi poet and columnist Najeeb Kashgari was arrested following three tweets considered irreligious.

Demonstrations can easily turn violent. In the past, inflammatory speech and a death warrant by Ayatollah Khomeini spread the protests associated with Salman Rushdie's novel, "The Satanic Verses." In 2005, deadly riots were sparked by the cartoon controversy started in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten.

At the United Nations General Assembly and Human Rights Council, the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC), one of the largest voting blocs in the U.N., has introduced multiple resolutions over many years in favor of bans on speech considered offensive to Islam.

More recently, the wording was altered to exclude defamation of religion, which is unacceptable to the West, where defamation applies to people, not concepts. Instead, the changes focused on incitement to discrimination. However, incitement defined in terms of a "test of consequences" in relation to the extent of the response, still leaves those who speak offensively against Islam open to prosecution. In spite of the unchanged threat to free speech, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton praised the reworking of the resolution.

Today, with Islamist governments in control after the Arab Spring uprisings, the advance of authoritarian, sexist ideology is ever-present. The danger is amplified by rivalry with more extreme Islamists, the Salafists, who share power.

Extremists are in favor of anti-blasphemy laws and the issue is central to their demands. Most of the Muslim world supports such laws and agrees with the end result of the recent protests, if not with the methods. The campaign for criminalization is couched in terms of criticism of any religion but no faiths outside Islam have countered criticism with serious rage.

Instead of challenging the attack on free speech, the West has moved toward accommodation and self-censorship. France, Germany, Austria, Italy, Sweden and the Netherlands have implemented laws to prosecute people for "vilifying" Islam and in 2006, the British government came very close to introducing laws that would have made criticism of Islam, illegal.

Blasphemy laws stifle debate, which is essential to the women's reform movement, and they strengthen increasingly powerful extremists, who want to keep women subjugated in law and cultural practice.

These drives have not been adequately resisted in the West. President Obama has extended an olive branch to non-violent Islamists while largely ignoring reform in both rhetoric and action.

In his Cairo speech, he demanded punishment for those who oppose women wearing the hijab or headscarf, but disregarded "honor killings" of some women who chose not to wear it, and the lenient sentences for perpetrators. He did not denounce forced marriage, child marriage, gender segregation, male guardianship, confining females in the house or throwing acid on schoolgirls, and he ignored discriminatory laws against women in regard to marriage, divorce, custody, court testimony and rape.

Sadly, he failed to support Iranian reformers who protested the validity of the presidential election results in 2009, and more recently, the women in Mali, who are facing increasing restrictions by Islamist groups.

In relation to the offensive online video, President Obama chose to ignore the inappropriate response and violence, de-emphasized the issue of free expression, and failed to address the irony of hate speech accusations and persecution of minorities in the Muslim world.

Freedom of speech is the foundation of all freedoms and intellectual debate, and the cornerstone for development in the Muslim world. If denied, the door to women's reform will close and the Muslim world will regress even further, an outcome that is bound to be detrimental to the West.