Much is being made about the U.N. Anti-Blasphemy Resolution, which calls upon member nations, including the United States, to combat defamation of religion — Islam in particular. Critics of the resolution include CNN’s Lou Dobbs, who describes the opposition against the resolution as a “fight for free speech,” author Christopher Hitchens, and Islamophobes around the blogosphere who scathingly label the resolution a step towards “spreading Sharia law to the West.”
The resolution, “Combating the Defamation of Religion,” was adopted in 2007 and “stresses the need to effectively combat defamation of all religions and incitement to religious hatred, against Islam and Muslims in particular.” Unsurprisingly, religious groups and free-speech advocates in the United States accuse the resolution of impeding on constitutional rights such as freedom of expression. John Bolton, former U.N. Ambassador, comments: “It’s obviously intended to have an intimidating effect on people expressing criticism of radical Islam, and the idea that you can have a defamation of a religion like this, I think, is a concept fundamentally foreign to our system of free expression in the United States.”
I’ve noticed a lot of bloggers terming this issue “freedom under fire” and I see a lot of Islamophobes pouncing on it since it “scores points” for their “argument” that Muslims want to “impose Sharia law.” What I see missing from these reactions are efforts to engage in global dialogue between the Muslim and non-Muslim worlds. Rather than recognizing the importance of much-needed dialogue, Lou Dobbs and Christopher Hitchens spend about seven minutes defending freedom of expression, accusing the U.N. of being a “totalitarian” and “authoritarian organization,” and resorting to typical fear-mongering tactics by saying there are “Muslims who are prepared to use violence at the drop of a hat.” Dobbs and Hitchens present us with a very singular, misconstrued, and stereotypical perspective on the situation instead of acknowledging social problems such as annually rising hate crimes and discriminatory acts against Muslims in the West, which clearly contribute to the formation of this particular U.N. resolution.
The fact of the matter is that this is a very complicated issue. Personally, I find the U.N. anti-blasphemy resolution flawed. Although the resolution aims to prevent violence and discrimination against people of any religious background, I believe the defamation laws can be abused by governments. Individuals should be allowed to express their views and opinions about religions and cultures without worrying about being criminalized. I am not against the idea of people criticizing Islam; surely everyone is entitled to their opinion, but what I am against is dehumanization and vilification of religions and entire groups of people. There is a difference between constructive criticism and hate speech, the latter has the potential to lead to discrimination and hate crimes. One could argue that organizations like the KKK are entitled to “freedom of speech,” but when they advocate violence towards African-Americans, it no longer complies with the American constitution.
The “Combating the Defamation of Religion” resolution was introduced by the Organization of the Islamic Conference. The fact that the resolution stems from a Muslim organization should indicate the importance of dialogue rather than perceiving the idea as an attempt to “impose Sharia law in the West.” As I mentioned, I do not support the resolution, but I think it raises an important opportunity for Muslim and non-Muslim communities to achieve a richer and empathetic understanding about issues related to vilification of Islam in mainstream media, pop culture, and newspapers. During the Muslim Holy Month of Ramadan in 2007, for example, the Clarion Fund decided to distribute millions of anti-Islamic DVDs entitled “Obsession” to swing states in the U.S. Although there are those who continue to argue that the film is an exercise of “freedom of expression,” the larger issue that is often ignored is how Islamophobic imagery was distributed on a massive scale. Whenever Muslims protested against the DVD and wrote letters to their newspapers, they were often accused of being “over-sensitive” or “impeding on American values.” Muslim voices were hardly given a chance to voice their own opinions about the DVD and how it made them feel. Instead, their voices were lost and dumped into a box of Islamophobic generalizations.
The argument that people like Dobbs and Hitchens don’t seem interested in is that dehumanization and vilification of a religion and/or entire group of people is an inevitable companion of war. In other words, in order to successfully rally supporters for war, one needs to establish an immensely contrasting divide between “us” and “them.” Demonizing the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, in the Danish cartoons is an example of attacking the very heart of Muslims and reinforcing the “differences” between non-Muslims and Muslims, not just in the Islamic world, but also within the West. The Danish cartoons also generated such a negative perception and attitude towards the Prophet Muhammad that CAIR (the Council for American-Islamic Relations) mobilized to hold seminars to educate and enlighten non-Muslims about the truth of the Prophet. Muslims wouldn’t have held educational programs if they weren’t so concerned about the general public’s perception of their religion after the Danish cartoons and riots. The mainstream media didn’t seem to be concerned with these stories because they were too busy covering the violent riots in the Muslim world. The inability to empathize with the sentiments of Muslims all over the world (including in the West) represents a failure to establish communication and understanding.
It is important for freedom of speech to be protected, but when Muslim-Americans experience ignorance, verbal abuse, physical assault, and vandalism, it is society’s responsibility to recognize that they, like every other American citizen, deserve to be treated equally regardless of their skin color, culture, and religious background. Sensitive issues need to be discussed fairly and openly between Muslim and non-Muslim communities, otherwise stereotypes and misunderstandings will continue to persist. Islamophobic rhetoric and blindly defending “free speech” are just obstacles and barriers that are created to prevent necessary dialogue. If people like Lou Dobbs and Christopher Hitchens took the opportunity to engage in respectful and open-minded discussions with Muslim-Americans, they may empathize with how Islamophobic material, like the Danish cartoons and the “Obsession” DVD, have been used to bully, harass, and discriminate against Muslims in the West.
In the end, it is not simply a matter of “freedom of speech.” It’s a matter of understanding one another better. The Muslim-American experience needs to stop being treated as something “foreign;” on the contrary it is an American story that isn’t being given enough voice. As Muslim students, who protested the Danish cartoons in Washington D.C., wrote on their banners, “Freedom of Speech Does Not Equal Freedom to Hate.”