Some of the world’s most repressive governments are attempting to use a controversy over a Swedish cartoon to provide legitimacy for their suppression of their critics in the name of respect for Islam. In particular, the Organization of the Islamic Conference is seeking to rewrite international human rights standards to curtail any freedom of expression that threatens their more authoritarian members.
In August, Swedish artist Lars Vilks drew a cartoon with Mohammed’s head on a dog’s body. He is now in hiding after Al Qaeda in Iraq placed a bounty of $100,000 on his head (with a $50,000 bonus if his throat is slit) and police told him he was no longer safe at home. As with the 2005 Danish Jyllands-Posten cartoons, and the knighting of Salman Rushdie, Muslim ambassadors and the OIC have not only demanded an apology from the Swedes, but are also pushing Western countries to restrict press freedom in the name of preventing “insults” to Islam.
The Iranian foreign ministry protested to Sweden, while Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad asserted that “Zionists,” “an organized minority who have infiltrated the world,” were behind the affair. Pakistan complained and said that “the right to freedom of expression” is inconsistent with “defamation of religions and prophets.” The Turkish Ministry of Religious Affairs called for rules specifying new limits of press freedom.
These calls were renewed in September when a U.N. report said that Articles 18, 19 and 20 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights should be reinterpreted by “adopting complementary standards on the interrelations between freedom of expression, freedom of religion and non-discrimination.” Speaking for the OIC, Pakistani diplomat Marghoob Saleem Butt then criticized “unrestricted and disrespectful enjoyment of freedom of expression.”
The issues here go beyond the right of cartoonists to offend people. They go to the heart of repression in much of the Muslim world. Islamists and authoritarian governments now routinely use accusations of blasphemy to repress writers, journalists, political dissidents and, perhaps politically most important, religious reformers.
On Sept. 22, three political dissidents in Iran, Ehsan Mansouri, Majid Tavakoli and Ahmad Ghassaban, were put on trial for writing articles against “Islamic holy values.” Iran’s most prominent dissident, Akbar Ganji, was himself imprisoned on charges including “spreading propaganda against the Islamic system.” In August, Taslima Nasreen, who had to flee Bangladesh for her life because her feminist writings were accused of being “against Islam,” was investigated in India for hurting Muslims’ “religious sentiments.”
Egypt has been unusually active of late in imprisoning its critics in the name of Islam. On Aug. 8, it arrested Adel Fawzy Faltas and Peter Ezzat, who work for the Canada-based Middle East Christian Association, on the grounds that, in seeking to defend human rights, they had “insulted Islam.” Egyptian State Security has also intensified its interrogation of Quranist Muslims, whose view of Islam stresses political freedom. One of them, Amr Tharwat, had coordinated the monitoring of Egypt’s June Shura Council elections on behalf of the pro-democracy Ibn Khaldun Center, headed by prominent Egyptian democracy activist Saad Eddin Ibrahim. Prominent Egyptian ‘blogger’ Abdel Kareem Soliman was sentenced earlier this year to three years for “insulting Islam.”
Saudi Arabian democracy activists Ali al-Demaini, Abdullah al-Hamed, and Matruk al-Faleh were originally imprisoned on charges of using “unIslamic terminology,” such as ‘democracy’ and ‘human rights,’ when they called for a written constitution. Saudi teacher Mohammad al-Harbi was sentenced to 40 months in jail and 750 lashes for “mocking religion” after discussing the Bible in class and saying that the Jews were right. He was released only after an international outcry led King Abdullah to pardon him. The Indonesian Ulema Council, considered the country’s highest Islamic authority, issued a fatwa banning the Liberal Islamic Network, which teaches an open interpretation of the Koran. Then the radical Islam Defenders Front has threatened Ulil Abshar Abdulla, the network’s founder.
Of course, these are not the only threats in repressive states’ arsenals. In Egypt activists and critics have been imprisoned for forgery and damaging Egypt’s image abroad. Saudi Arabia and Iran use a host of restrictive measures. But blasphemy charges are a potent weapon and are used systematically to silence and destroy religious minorities, authors and journalists and democracy activists. As the late Naguib Mahfouz, the only Arab winner of the Nobel Prize in literature, and whose novel Children of Gebelawi was banned in Egypt for blasphemy, put it: “no blasphemy harms Islam and Muslims so much as the call for murdering a writer.”
Repressive laws, supplemented and reinforced by terrorists, vigilantes and mob violence, are a fundamental barrier to open discussion and dissent, and so to democracy and free societies, within the Muslim world. When politics and religion are intertwined, there can be no political freedom without religious freedom, including the right to criticize religious ideas. Hence, removing legal bans on blasphemy and ‘insulting Islam’ is vital to protecting an open debate that could lead to other reforms.
If, in the name of false toleration and religious sensitivity, free nations do not firmly condemn and resist these totalitarian strictures, we will abet the isolation of reformist Muslims, and condemn them to silence behind what Sen. Joseph Lieberman has aptly termed a “theological iron curtain.”