Islamic States Press for Limits on Free Expression

By Patrick Goodenough | April 21, 2006 | 8:17pm EDT

( - Islamic groups and governments are pressing ahead with a campaign to have international organizations take steps, including legal ones, to provide protection for their religion in the wake of the Mohammed cartoon controversy.

In a drive pursued largely away from the headlines, the Organization for the Islamic Conference (OIC) is promoting the issue at the United Nations and European Union, and having some success.

The executive council of the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) this month approved an agenda item entitled "respect for freedom of expression, sacred beliefs, values and religious and cultural symbols."

Introduced by more than 30 Islamic states and the subject of considerable debate, the motion explicitly tied freedom of expression to " respect for cultural diversity, religious beliefs and religious symbols."

It also directed UNESCO's director-general to carry out a "comprehensive study of all existing relevant international instruments."

The motion did not refer directly to the furor over the publication of cartoons satirizing Mohammed, although an "explanatory note" offered by the OIC members did.

The publication of caricatures of the Prophet of Islam has caused deep and widespread
offense and indignation within the Muslim community around the world," the note said, adding that respect for religious symbols and beliefs and freedom of expression were "indissociable."

"Given the importance of religion to peoples and to dignity and the way of life in different cultures, respect for different religious beliefs is essential to international peace and security and to the progress of human civilizations," it said.

The Saudi-based OIC secretariat is spearheading the international campaign of response to what it has called "wanton provocation and reckless, blasphemous libertarianism cowering behind so-called freedom of the press."

European newspapers that reproduced 12 cartoons first published in a Danish daily last fall said they were doing so in defense of free expression. Muslims around the world protested, some violently, calling the depictions of their prophet blasphemous.

The UNESCO move is just the latest illustration of the way the OIC and its 56 member states are using the cartoon episode to apply pressure on the West to comply with Islamic norms.

"OIC efforts at the international level to tackle the repercussions of the caricature crisis and to meet the expectations of the Muslim world continue," it said in a recent statement.

The matter was being taken up in exchanges with the E.U., " as well as with various international and regional intergovernmental organizations and NGOs."

The OIC said it was pursuing a "strategy to take initiatives at various international organs to contribute to the formation of an international legal framework" aimed at preventing a recurrence of the cartoon crisis. The action at UNESCO was a component of this strategy.

At an OIC meeting in Istanbul this month, OIC secretary-general Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu
urged representatives of Islamic states to approach their counterparts in the West "with the aim of defending the interests of the Muslim world, presenting the true image of Islam and combating the stereotype perceptions about Islam and Muslims."

In an earlier accomplishment, OIC members last February succeeded in pushing through a last-minute amendment to the preamble of a U.N. resolution establishing a new U.N. Human Rights Council

The OIC addition to the text referred to the important role of states, NGOs, religious groups and the media "in promoting tolerance, respect for and freedom of religion and belief" - but made no balancing reference to freedom of speech.

'Support mosque construction'

The Islamic campaign has won sympathetic responses from some senior U.N. and E.U. figures.

"Your anguish over the publication of insulting cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed is clear and understandable," Secretary-General Kofi Annan said in a message read on his behalf at an OIC gathering in Istanbul this month.

While he said all should speak up for freedom of worship and freedom of speech, he added: "We must exercise great sensitivity when dealing with symbols and traditions that are sacred to other people."

Addressing a meeting of European imams in Vienna, Foreign Minister Ursula Plassnik of Austria - the current E.U. president - also referred to the cartoons. "Freedoms do have limits that should not be overstepped," she told 300 Muslim religious leaders from across the continent.

At the same gathering, the head of the E.U.'s official anti-racism body bemoaned what she said was a "dangerously high" level of anti-Muslim discrimination in Europe.

Beate Winkler, head of the European Monitoring Center on Racism and Xenophobia, said E.U. governments should provide time for religious programs on public broadcasters and support mosque construction.

Participant Turfa Bagaghati of the European Network Against Racism -- an E.U.-funded NGO -- told Islam Online it was time Muslims pressed "for their rights, like enacting laws banning aggression on Islam."

E.U. external relations commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner also addressed the Vienna meeting, saying that both freedom of religion and freedom of expression were "non-negotiable."

But she added a qualifier only in the case of freedom of expression, saying "it does come with responsibilities and should be exercised with the necessary sensitivity to others."

The E.U. will next month hold a "Euro-Med" seminar of xenophobia and racism in the media, bringing together representatives from the E.U. and the predominantly Muslim countries of North Africa and the Middle East.

In another development, it was reported last week that E.U. bureaucrats are drawing up a "lexicon" of terminology to use when referring to Islam. Words like "Islamist" and "jihad" are under review, as is the phrase "Islamic terrorism."

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