Islamic governments angle for speech curbs in the US

Neil Munro | White House Correspondent

The State Department began a three-day, closed-door meeting Monday to talk about U.S. free speech rules with representatives from numerous Islamic governments that have lobbied for 12 years to end U.S. citizens’ ability to speak freely about Islam’s history and obligations.

Free speech advocates slammed the event as an effort to gradually curb public criticism of Islam, but it was defended by Hannah Rosenthal, who heads the agency’s office to curb anti-Semitism.

The meeting is a great success, she said, because governments in the multinational Organisation for Islamic Cooperation have dropped their demand that criticism of Islamic ideas be treated as illegal defamation. Member countries include Pakistan, Iran, Saudia Arabia and Qatar.

In exchange for dropping the demand, she said, they’re getting “technical assistance [to] build institutions to ensure there will be religious freedom” in their countries, she told The Daily Caller.

“That’s a joke,” said Andrea Lafferty, a conservative activist who was repeatedly denied information about the meeting.

Rosenthal’s claim that the OIC is accepting freedom of speech and religion implies revolutionary changes in Islamic countries, she said. That’s because Islamic texts set myriad laws for behavior, and sharply restrict non-Muslim religions, free speech and women’s rights, said Lafferty, who is president of the Traditional Values Coalition, a conservative advocacy group.

If the OIC countries are giving up on their religious obligation to ban criticism of Islam, she said, “does this mean that Pakistan is no longer going to kill Christians and kill religious minorities? … Are women in Saudi Arabia going to vote, to drive, to live free lives?”

“We hope so,” said Rosenthal, who added that such progress will not occur rapidly.

The more realistic explanation for the three-day event, Lafferty said, is that administration officials, progressives and OIC officials are tacitly cooperating to gradually stigmatize speech that is critical of Islam.

Lafferty pointed to a July statement by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in which she said that free speech will be protected, but the U.S. government will “use some old-fashioned techniques of peer pressure and shaming, so that people don’t feel that they have the support to do what we abhor.”

Clinton’s statement was issued at Istanbul, where the United States and the OIC launched the joint project to combat “religious intolerance.”

Prior to the launch, OIC officials spent 12 years lobbying for a U.N. resolution that would declared criticism of religion to be defamation. U.S. officials strongly opposed this measure as a restriction on free speech and a barrier to Internet services.

In March, the OIC dropped the defamation resolution in exchange for passage of a resolution in the Human Rights Committee, dubbed 16/18.

The new resolution was titled “Combating Intolerance, Negative Stereotyping and Stigmatization of, and Discrimination, Incitement to Violence and Violence Against, Persons Based on Religion or Belief.” It urges all governments to counter “Islamophobia,” and declares opposition to “derogatory stereotyping, negative profiling and stigmatization of persons based on their religion or belief.”

However, it also urges states to promote tolerance of all believers, and to promote “a wider knowledge of different religions and beliefs.”

This week’s State Department meeting is intended to begin implementing the 16/18 decision. The meeting is titled “The Istanbul Process for Combating Intolerance and Discrimination based on Religion or Belief.”

Another meeting is slated for February or March, said Rosenthal.

But the OIC’s definition of religious intolerance collides with U.S. notion of free speech and robust debate, said Lafferty.

The meeting won’t curb freedom of speech in the United States, Rosenthal countered, because the U.S. government will protect free speech. “We would protect free speech,” she said.

However, “hateful” and “Islamophobic” speech, said Rosenthal, “needs to be called out.” Asked to define “hate speech,” she said that if critics of Islam’s ideology “are just taking out the hateful parts [of the Quran] or claiming [they’re] all superior to them … that can be very damaging.”

The term “Islamophobia” was developed by U.S.-based advocates to stigmatize critics of Islam. It is mimics the “homophobia” term used by advocates of rights for gays. It is now in common use by progressive’s groups, such as the Center for American Progress.

But Islam deserves to be criticized because it denies free speech, freedom of conscience and equality for women and non-Muslims, said Robert Spencer, an expert on Islamic texts and a best-selling author who is widely labeled by Islamists and progressives as “Islamophobic.” Today, he said, “there is no majority-Muslim country that fully protects those rights.”

Rosenthal’s reassurances of continued U.S. free speech are without merit, Lafferty said, partly because U.S. officials are already cooperating with Islamic countries to redefine criticism of Islam as not just ”Islamophobia,” but illegal “incitement to violence.”

In July, for example, Clinton told the international meeting that the 16/18 “resolution calls upon states … to prohibit discrimination, profiling, and hate crimes, but not to criminalize speech unless there is an incitement to imminent violence.”

The 16/18 deal won’t curb free speech, because incitement to violence can only be committed by speakers, not by listeners, responded Rosenthal.

But “here in America,” Lafferty said, “we have the right to speak freely, and we have open debate on variety of issues, but Islamists are claiming those conversations incite violence.”

“The State Department knows what they’re doing is wrong, otherwise they would not have been so evasive,” about the meeting, Lafferty said. The Dec. 12 to 14 meeting was quietly announced on Friday, Dec. 9, but few details were provided. Only two speakers were identified, and the government has not released the text of a speech given by the justice department’s civil-regulations chief, Tom Perez.

The 16/18 deal is tied to Obama’s outreach to Islamic countries and the OIC, which he launched in 2009 by giving a speech in Cairo.

To boost that outreach to the OIC, Obama appointed Rashad Hussain as his OIC ambassador in 2010. Hussein had tried to hide his attendance at a U.S. meeting of Islamic advocacy groups in 2004 where he declared the federal government’s prosecution of a Muslim terror leader was politically motivated, according to a Politico article.

The terror leader was Sami Al Arian, who also is a professor in Florida. He was a leader of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad group, which has used numerous suicide bombers to murder Israeli civilians in buses, nightclubs, shops and streets.

Obama subsequently kept Hussain as his OIC ambassador.

As part of that outreach to the OIC and to Arab Muslims, the administration has pushed hard to accelerate the elections in Egypt that have since given Islamists up to 65 percent of the vote. It has also dispatched U.S. airpower to kill Moammar Gadhafi, the dictator of Libya, which is now likely to be dominated by an Islamist government.

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