In the April 4-5 NATO meetings in Europe, most European nations backed former Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen for the new head of NATO. Turkey, however, objected — so strongly that it took President Obama’s personal intervention with Turkey’s President, Abdullah Gul, to have Rasmussen grudgingly accepted. Even then, Turkey said it would agree only if it were given concessions by the European Union in negotiations on Turkey’s accession, the appointment of two Turks to senior NATO posts, and some sort of mea culpa by Rasmussen. It received all three.
These concessions were given not to overcome objections by Ankara to any NATO policy. Turkey objected to Rasmussen because, after the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published cartoons of Mohammed in 2005, Rasmussen, as prime minister, had robustly defended the rights of a free press. Thus, in partial recompense for cartoons published in a private newspaper over which Rasmussen had no control, and sought no control, Turkey succeeded in extracting concessions from the West’s premier military alliance.
By demanding concessions from Western governments for what Western newspapers publish, and by actually receiving political recompense from those same governments, Turkey has made major steps in requiring Western governments to be held accountable for what their newspapers publish. From there, it is a short step to the need to control what those newspapers publish.
This imbroglio has not sprung suddenly from the sky: It is — like the forthcoming April 20-25 United Nations World Conference on Racism (“Durban II”) and the current state of the UN Human Rights Council — the latest stage of a long campaign by the Organization of the Islamic Conference to outlaw anything that its members claim is religiously offensive, often including any criticism of their own conduct.
Within the UN, the United States has rightly resisted invidious attacks on Israel, but it has tended to treat UN resolutions aiming to curb freedom of speech and religion only as occasional irritants to be resisted when necessary, but never as grounds for a vigorous counterattack in defense of freedom. In contrast, for the last 20 years, the Organization of the Islamic Conference has waged a systematic campaign to use charges of “Islamophobia” and purported “insults to Islam” to silence critics at home and abroad. The OIC, an association of 57 states committed to promoting Muslim solidarity, wants to destroy the principle of the universality of human rights and freedoms, and in the UN it is winning.
This OIC campaign began in August 1990, with “The Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam.” In form, this declaration mimics the Universal Declaration of Human Rights but, in substance, it subordinates every human rights guarantee to an undefined Islamic law. Notably, freedom of speech was subordinated to laws against blasphemy, which carries the death penalty in some OIC states. Though the Cairo Declaration was neither debated nor adopted in any UN forum, it has since been cited as an authority and endorsed in official UN reports and incorporated in UN resolutions.
This was followed in the 1990s by attacks on UN human rights reporting. In 1994, the UN special rapporteur on Sudan, Gaspar Biro, reported that Sudan’s use of the death penalty for anyone over the age of seven convicted of adultery or apostasy violated its commitments to international human rights agreements. Sudanese diplomats responded that, since their laws were “Islamic,” Biro’s criticism was a criticism of Islam itself and was therefore blasphemous, and they implicitly threatened his life, suggesting that if he continued “offending the feelings of Muslims worldwide” he might “face the fate of Mr. Salman Rushdie.”
In 1997, OIC members, including Pakistan, Indonesia, Egypt, Algeria, and Bangladesh, among others, similarly took umbrage at investigations of anti-Semitism, and accused the UN special rapporteur on racism of ‘blasphemy’ for reporting on anti-Semitism in Muslim countries. Consequently, in the next report on racism, in 1999, the section on anti-Semitism mentioned specifically only Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union as problem areas. Thus, in apparent deference to many Muslim countries’ claimed privilege, the Human Rights Commission exempted an entire region of the world from scrutiny on anti-Semitism. Under similar pressure from the OIC bloc, in 2002, the Commission terminated the mandate of its special representative on human rights in Iran.
In 1999, the OIC began a campaign first in the Human Rights Commission, then in its successor the Human Rights Council, and, most recently, in the General Assembly and the Security Council, to outlaw any criticism that could be construed, by them, as a ‘defamation of religion,’ specifically Islam. With support from China, Russia, and, later, Venezuela, Cuba, Belarus, and other authoritarian states, this produced yearly resolutions declaring such ‘defamation’ a violation of international law.
In the next stage of the campaign, in 2002, OIC states, in complete defiance of Islam’s nonracial character, redefined religious dissent and criticism as ‘racism’ and added it to the mandate of the special rapporteur on racism. This campaign was intensified when Saudi Arabia, the chief sponsor of the OIC, called a special OIC meeting in Mecca in December 2005 during the manufactured hubbub over the Jyllands-Posten cartoons. Then, in 2008, in truly Orwellian fashion, they reversed the mandate of the special rapporteur on freedom of expression to include reporting on when “the abuse of the right of freedom of expression constitutes an act of racial or religious discrimination.”
We need to be clear that the Islamic conference is targeting far more than irreverent cartoons: It aims to rewrite human rights standards along the lines of the Cairo Declaration in order to curtail any freedom of expression, domestic or international, that threatens its own more authoritarian members. If freedom from defamation is recognized as a new human right, then publishing virtually anything claimed to be “unIslamic” can be deemed a crime that must be punished. Under this scenario, Rasmussen would have violated human rights by failing to prosecute Danish journalists.
This disciplined campaign has continued within the UN and outside of it. In response, the United States and other Western democracies at first compromised, then, even after realizing the full effect of the OIC resolutions on individual freedom, focused on opposing them only in the few weeks that UN human rights bodies were in session. The United States has tended to treat these resolutions as irritants but not as serious grounds for a vigorous counterattack. The result is that the campaign to suppress individual freedom is slowly prevailing.
We need to resist what Jeane Kirkpatrick, in the context of terrorism, once called radicals’ “long march through the UN.” We need the same commitment of time and energy to defending freedom as the Islamic conference bloc and its allies put into attacking it. The stakes go beyond the politics of the UN bureaucracy. When politics and religion are intertwined, as they are in much of the world, there can be no political freedom without religious freedom, including the right to criticize religious ideas.