(CNSNews.com) – The Obama administration says a meeting in Washington next week seeks to make progress in combating religious intolerance, but critics say the U.S. is pandering to an ideological agenda aimed at restricting speech critical of Islam.
According to the State Department the aim is to find ways to combat religious hate without compromising freedom of expression. Detractors are skeptical that this can be done, and they suspect that free speech will end up the loser.
Among those criticizing the event are GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich, the Traditional Values Coalition, and scholars at the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom.
The State Department-hosted meeting is the latest step in a process stemming from a resolution on “combating intolerance based on religion,” adopted by consensus at the U.N. Human Rights Council (HRC) last March.
The move marked the first time in more than a decade that the U.N.’s top human rights body did not pass an annual “defamation of religion” resolution, sponsored by the bloc of Islamic states, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).
Many rights advocacy groups regard the OIC campaign as an attempt to outlaw valid discussion of Islamic teachings – to extend to democratic societies the type of blasphemy provisions enforced in some Islamic states.
The new resolution, known as “resolution 16/18,” called on countries to combat “intolerance, negative stereotyping and stigmatization” based on religion, without seeking to criminalize speech – except in cases of “incitement to imminent violence.”
The administration characterized it as a significant breakthrough: “[T]he Council took an important step away from the deeply problematic concept of defamation of religion by adopting a constructive new resolution that promotes tolerance for all religious beliefs, promotes education and dialogue and is consistent with U.S. laws and universal values.”
Some human rights and religious freedom advocacy groups opposed to the “religious defamation” drive also praised the development.
Others were skeptical, noting that the OIC had watched its defamation resolutions receive less and less support each year and may view resolution 16/18 as an alternative route towards achieving the same end.
OIC leaders themselves did not help to allay these suspicions, stressing that the Islamic bloc had not abandoned its agenda of “protecting” Islam and insisting that the “religious defamation” campaign was not dead.
On the sidelines of a first meeting held to advance resolution 16/18, in Istanbul last July, Pakistan’s U.N. ambassador Zamir Akram said that the OIC would not compromise on three things – anything said or done against the Qur’an, anything said or done against Mohammed, and discrimination against the Muslim community. (Akram represents a government overseeing some of the Islamic world’s most controversial blasphemy laws, where “blaspheming” the Qur’an or Mohammed carries the death penalty.)
At that Istanbul meeting, co-chairs Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and OIC Secretary-General Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu issued a statement urging countries “to take effective measures, as set forth in Resolution 16/18, consistent with their obligations under international human rights law, to address and combat intolerance, discrimination, and violence based on religion or belief.”
Next week’s gathering in Washington is a follow-up to the one in Istanbul, and it aims at “implementation.”
From the OIC’s viewpoint, resolution 16/18 is clearly part of the defamation campaign: “Washington plans to host a meeting on resolution opposing defamation of religions,” the OIC’s official news agency reported last August.
Ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom Suzan Johnson Cook says the meeting will bring together international organizations, including the OIC, European Union, Arab League and African Union, as well as law enforcement and justice officials representing some 30 foreign governments.
The meeting will “discuss best practices for two of the recommended actions from resolution 16/18: engagement with members of minority religious communities and enforcement of laws that prohibit acts of discrimination on the basis of religion or belief,” she said.
The State Department would afterwards submit a report on “best practices identified during these sessions” to the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights and for public distribution.
‘Americans never signed on to submit their sovereignty to the U.N.’
The administration argues that the way to find a middle road between combating religious hate speech and upholding free speech is to use the tools of education, public debate and interfaith dialogue rather than legal prescriptions.
Naming and shaming is also part of the arsenal, with Clinton at the Istanbul meeting speaking of using “some old-fashioned techniques of peer pressure and shaming.”
Also in Istanbul, U.S. permanent representative to the HRC, Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe, gave an OIC publication an example of the type of action regarded as effective, citing the administration’s condemnation of Florida pastor Terry Jones’ Qur’an-burning demonstration.
“When you have the president, the secretary of state and public figures jointly condemning that, it will be more effective than throwing that pastor in jail,” the OIC Journal quoted Donahoe as saying. “I believe the same is true for the hateful [Mohammed] cartoons. We should all be joining together in conveying our disgust with such intolerance.”
Critics question the wisdom of partnering with an organization with a troubling agenda. They also wonder why the administration is cooperating with an OIC effort to give legal teeth to what is a non-binding resolution.
“President Obama should put a stop to this nonsense and declare that in free societies all views and religions are subject to contradiction and critique – and the OIC must learn to tolerate that,” Hudson Institute Center for Religious Freedom director Nina Shea and senior fellow Paul Marshall in a Wall Street Journal op-ed this week.
Former House speaker and Republican presidential hopeful Gingrich also voiced concern.
“Just days after chastising Israel for ‘unfair’ treatment of women, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will welcome a Saudi-based Islamist group, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) to Washington for a conference on ‘tolerance,’” he wrote in a Human Events column on Wednesday. “Far from a tolerant organization, however, a primary mission of the OIC is to restrict free speech critical of Islam.”
The Traditional Values Coalition has requested permission to be admitted as an observer to next week’s meeting, and says the State Department has so far refused.
In a letter to Clinton Thursday repeating the request, TVC President Andrea Lafferty wrote that not allowing the organization to observe would only “lead to the conclusion that the objective of this meeting is not religious liberty and toleration, but rather a concert designed to chill, contain, and curb religious liberties and free speech.”
“Why is it that the U.S. Constitution must come second when representatives from Islamic counties such as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan demand we must curb our religious liberties and free speech?” Lafferty asked in a statement.
“Americans never signed on to submit their sovereignty to the United Nations, nor should they be expected to submit to the will of Islamic countries whose human rights record against women, Christians, and other persecuted minorities continues to shock the world.”