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Muslim nations seek int'l blasphemy ban

Muslim nations seek int'l blasphemy ban

Author: AP
Publication: The Times of India
Date: November 23, 2009

Introduction: Free Speech Advocates Horrified As Pakistan Leads Push To Limit Criticism Of Religions

Four years after cartoons of Prophet Muhammad set off violent protests across the Muslim world, Islamic nations are mounting a campaign for an international treaty to protect religious symbols and beliefs from mockery-essentially a ban on blasphemy that would put them on a collision course with free speech laws in the West.

Documents filed with a UN committee show that Algeria and Pakistan have taken the lead in lobbying to eventually bring the proposal to a vote in the UN General Assembly.

If ratified in countries that enshrine freedom of expression as a fundamental right, such a treaty would require them to limit free speech if it risks seriously offending religious believers. The process, though, will take years. And the proposal faces stiff resistance from Western countries, including the US.

Experts say the bid stands chance of eventual success if Muslim countries persist. And whatever the outcome, the campaign risks reigniting tensions between Muslims and the West that President Barack Obama has pledged to heal, reviving fears of a "clash of civilizations".

Four years ago, a Danish newspaper published cartoons lampooning Prophet Muhammad, prompting angry mobs to attack Western embassies in Muslim countries. In a countermovement, several European newspapers reprinted the images.

The countries that form the 56-member Organization of the Islamic Conference are now lobbying a littleknown Geneva-based UN committee to agree that a treaty protecting religions is necessary. The move would be a first step toward drafting a protocol that would eventually be put before the General Assembly. If the treaty was approved, any of the UN's 192 member states that ratified it would be bound by its provisions.

The proposal may have some support in the General Assembly. For several years the OIC has successfully passed a non-binding resolution at the General Assembly condemning "defamation of religions".

Just last month, the Obama administration came out strongly against efforts by Islamic nations to bar the defamation of religions. "Some claim that the best way to protect the freedom of religion is to implement so-called anti-defamation policies that would restrict freedom of expression and the freedom of religion," secretary of state Hillary Clinton said. "I strongly disagree."

But there are signs the US is worried by the Islamic Conference campaign. Behind the scenes it has been lobbying hard to quash the proposal, dispatching a senior US diplomat to Geneva last month for talks described as akin to trench warfare.

It's not clear who would decide what is considered grossly abusive, but each country's criminal courts would likely have initial jurisdiction over that decision, according to Marghoob Saleem Butt, a Pakistani diplomat in Geneva who has lobbied for the ban. "There has to be a balance between freedom of expression and respect for others," Butt said.

An expert of the UN human rights system said the treaty could have farreaching implications. "It would, in essence, advance a global blasphemy law," said Felice Gaer, a member of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom.

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