Rabkin in American Spectator: Islam and Free Speech

Writing in the March 2009 issue of The American Spectator, Professor Jeremy Rabkin states, "To defend free speech in America, we may find it more and more important to insist that we have the right—and under our inherited Constitution, the duty—to hold to our own ideas about what we can be allowed to say among ourselves."

Rabkin examines recent trends in which representatives of overseas governments have demanded that Western nations suppress speech that "casts Islam in a bad light," and he points to numerous cases in which organizations and nations, including the United Nations and the European nations, have increasingly responded to such demands by accommodating them.

Looking at such a possibility in America, Rabkin cites a concern that the U.S. Supreme Court has traditionally sidestepped the question of whether the First Amendment allows the suppression of free speech in favor of protecting those who might be offended by it. "But perhaps the most worrisome concern is that a lot of American legal commentators, and now a narrow majority of Supreme Court justices, hold that the meaning of our own Constitution should evolve in some response to trends 'in the world community,'" says Rabkin.

Islam and Free Speech, The American Spectator, March 2009. By Jeremy Rabkin.

"By 2005, the UN Human Rights Commission had become so discredited by its obsessive denunciations of Israel and indifference to human rights abuses elsewhere that even Secretary-General Kofi Annan urged its reform. The new, supposedly reformed Human Rights Council ended up with such human rights champions as Cuba, Russia, and China, along with 14 members of the OIC, including Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Algeria.

"In its meeting of March 2007, the new council promptly adopted a new resolution warning that 'defamation of religion...leads to violations of human rights' and again mentioning only 'Islam and Muslims in particular.' The resolution specifically invoked the OIC's 2005 'extraordinary summit' as if it were part of the UN's official rationale-which, in effect, it was. The resolution specifically 'emphasize[ d] that...freedom of expression...should be exercised with responsibility and may therefore be subject to limitations...necessary for respect of the rights and reputations of others...and respect for religions and beliefs' and therefore 'deplore[d] the use of the print, audio-visual and electronic media, including the incite...xenophobia or related intolerance and discrimination toward Islam.' For good measure, it also protested 'the increasing trend in recent years of statements attacking... Islam and Muslims in particular in human rights forums.'

"The implications of all these claims have been made more clear in the past year. In earlier resolutions, 'Islamophobia' was linked with 'racism and xenophobia' and referred to the council's Special Rapporteur charged with monitoring 'racism, xenophobia and related intolerance.' In its meeting of March 2008, the council voted to refer its concerns about 'defamation of religion' to the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression. In effect, the resolution demanded that protection of free speech give way to protection against improper-Islamophobic- speech. As the Canadian delegate protested, 'instead of promoting freedom of expression, the Special Rapporteur would be policing its exercise.' But of course, it made no difference. In its December meeting at the end of last year, the UN General Assembly simply went ahead and endorsed the OIC-sponsored resolution that condemned 'discrimination against religions'-but, as usual, mentioned only 'Islamophobia' rather than attacks on any other faith.

"Last June, OIC members gave a startling demonstration of how they would protect against 'attacks' on 'Islam' in 'human rights forums.' In the midst of a review of women's rights, a representative of a Western NGO tried to present a report on the practice of female genital mutilation in Egypt and Sudan. The speaker tried to say that the practice would be stopped if religious authorities in Egypt clarified that it was not required by sharia law. Whereupon the Egyptian delegate immediately brought the proceedings to a halt, protesting that the statement was an attack on Islam. After futile efforts to calm tempers by the chair (a delegate from Romania), the Egyptian ambassador insisted that 'Islam will not be crucified in this forum.' The chair closed the meeting with assurances that the Council would not in future presume to discuss 'religious questions'-which, given the background, seemed to indicate that even oblique references to understandings of sharia, even if misunderstandings, could no longer be tolerated.

"If that is the standard for public debate, quite a lot would not be open to comment. A number of Western NGOs, concerned with religious freedom, raised objections. The Becket Fund, a Washington-based advocacy group for religious liberty, warned that the concept of 'defamation of religion' would 'undermine the foundations of the human rights system' (as previously understood), shifting its emphasis from 'the protection of individuals' to 'the protection of ideas or of group identities.'

"When courts are asked to decide claims of 'defamation' against individuals, it noted, truth is always a defense: instituting legal actions against 'defamation of religion' would 'require the state to determine which ideas are acceptable, as opposed to which facts are true.' Enforcing measures against 'defamation of religion' would thus 'empower majorities against dissenters and the state against individuals.'"