Freedom of Speech is a fundamental human right. It is coming under concerted attack, according to this piece from the independent Danish think-tank CEPOS. The author argues that what it cannot do directly – that is, criminalize criticism of Islam – nations and organizations like the Saudi-based OIC try to do indirectly through the UN. The author has some harsh, but deserved words for the US government’s seeming acquiescence in these efforts.
Defending free speech at the United Nations
Jacob Mchangama, Chefjurist i CEPOS
Freedom of speech is under physical and legal threat not only from terrorists but also at the UN. Two US-based Islamists planned to kill a cartoonist and the editor of Denmark’s Jyllands-Posten responsible for publishing cartoons depicting Muhammad in 2005, it was revealed a few weeks ago. Meanwhile, at the UN, the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) delivered another blow with a resolution on “combating defamation of religion,” which was passed by a committee of the UN’s General Assembly on 12 November.
While the tactics employed by terrorists and the OIC are obviously different, the purpose is essentially the same: to ensure that criticism of Islam is censored. And it is working.
Following news of the foiled attack against Jyllands-Posten, leading Danish newspapers refrained from reprinting the Muhammad cartoons despite doing so last year when another attack on the cartoonist was foiled. While the editors have explained this omission as a matter of “responsibility,” fear would seem more likely. That was, after all, the reason why Yale University chose to omit pictures of Muhammad in a book called The Cartoons That Shook the World. Thus, grotesquely, a book dedicated to investigating “the conflict that aroused impassioned debates around the world on freedom of expression, blasphemy and the nature of modern Islam” does not contain the very cartoons which were at the core of the book’s subject matter.
From Salman Rushdie to Jyllands-Posten, death threats have had a chilling effect on discussion, let alone criticism, of Islam.
The efforts to ban criticism of Islam through human rights law at the UN are not yet legally binding but they are making progress.