UNITED NATIONS -- The divide in world opinion over what constitutes free speech will be on display again next week at the United Nations, where heated arguments over a proposed blasphemy law were an annual feature for the past decade. This time it’s the global reaction to a YouTube video that disparages Islam’s Prophet Muhammad that’s sure to roil the meeting of the U.N. General Assembly.
Muslim leaders have vowed to discuss the offensive video from their U.N. platforms, sowing concern among free-speech activists of a fresh push toward an international law criminalizing blasphemy. Human rights groups and Western democracies resisted such an initiative for years and thought they’d finally quashed the matter after convincing enough nations that repressive regimes use blasphemy laws to imprison or execute dissidents.
“I expect that we’ll regress to where we were a couple of years ago,” said Courtney C. Radsch, program manager for the Global Freedom of Expression Campaign at Freedom House, the Washington-based nonprofit group that promotes democratic values.
“Human rights are not about protecting religions; human rights are to protect humans,” added Radsch, who’s followed the issue closely at the U.N. “Who is going to be the decision-maker on deciding what blasphemy is?”
At one end of the spectrum lies France, where a magazine on Wednesday published cartoons of the prophet as a naked, cowering man to underscore a point that even the most offensive expression should be protected. France plans to close its embassies and schools in 20 countries Friday as a precaution against retaliatory attacks.
At the other end of the spectrum is U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who surprised – and disappointed – many free-speech activists by suggesting limitations to freedom of speech when it’s “used to provoke or humiliate.”
“We are living through a period of unease. We are also seeing incidents of intolerance and hatred that are then exploited by others,” Ban told the 193-member assembly at the gathering’s opening this week. “Voices of moderation and calm need to make themselves heard at this time. We all need to speak up in favor of mutual respect and understanding of the values and beliefs of others.”
The head of the Arab League, Nabil Elaraby, decried the depictions of the prophet but added that only “peaceful means” should be used to protest them, according to news reports.
Elaraby’s native Egypt, however, took legal action, with the Islamist-led government filing a lawsuit against the Egyptian-American filmmakers of “Innocence of Muslims;” authorities also detained without charge an Egyptian atheist who’s accused of posting the video online.
The ultraconservative Islamists of the Nour Party went even farther, filing a formal request with the public prosecutor to revoke citizenship for any Egyptian who insults the prophet.
The Obama administration, meanwhile, quickly shushed a rogue public relations employee at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo who’d reportedly gone off-message to condemn the video at the onset of the crisis. This week, after Republicans assailed the administration’s confusing response, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland sounded forceful in her defense of free speech.