“Whereas this may be repugnant, it may be insulting, we may all be offended by it, and we separate ourselves definitively from it – as a government we’re not involved – we believe in free speech,” Nuland said. “We believe that free speech should be protected, and there’s never an excuse for violence as a result of an insult.”
Protests over the crudely made “Innocence of Muslims” video have taken place in dozens of countries over the past week. On Thursday in Pakistan, mobs burned American flags and tried to storm the U.S. Embassy but were forced back by police firing clouds of tear gas. U.S. officials braced for even more widespread anti-U.S. demonstrations after prayers Friday, the Muslim holy day.
For years, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, or OIC, a 57-member bloc of countries that seeks to guard Muslim interests around the world, has proposed a resolution criminalizing the defamation of religion.
By last year, free-speech proponents had convinced so many countries to ditch the cause that no new defamation of religion resolution was proposed. Instead, Pakistan won U.S. support for an alternative resolution on “combating intolerance;” the only speech it seeks to ban is “incitement to imminent violence.”
Now, Turkey heads the OIC and, while the group hasn’t formally announced whether it will resurrect its old initiative to criminalize defamation of religion, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said he’d bring up the topic during his allotted speaking time in New York next week.
Erdogan had no qualms laying out to journalists his view that free speech comes with boundaries. “Freedom of thought and belief ends where the freedom of thought and belief of others starts,” he said.
The issue is much broader than the Muslim world. Greece has used its blasphemy laws to bar certain displays of art, according to Freedom House, while Ireland adopted a blasphemy law in 2008. And in a headline-grabbing case, Russia last month convicted three members of the feminist punk collective Pussy Riot of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred.”
“There are Muslim, there are Christians, there are nondenominational countries that have blasphemy laws,” said Radsch of Freedom House. “It’s not about the religion of the country – it’s about the broader institutions of democracy and rule of law.”
Even in the United States, free speech is undergoing a test through lawsuits over an ad that a notoriously Islamophobic group seeks to place in the Washington and New York City subway systems. The ad reads: “In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. Support Israel. Defeat Jihad.”
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which runs New York’s subway and train systems, initially rejected the ads because they violated a prohibition on “demeaning” language. A federal judge ruled that those standards are unconstitutional; the ads should be up soon.
Meanwhile, the transit authority in Washington has resisted putting up the ads out of “a concern for public safety, given current world events,” according to news reports. A judge has given the agency two weeks to revisit its decision.