WASHINGTON-When President Obama delivered a June speech in Cairo, he made clear in warm words cushioned with cultural knowledge that his administration would reach out to the Muslim world.
But at the end of October, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sharply condemned an effort of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), a coalition of 56 Muslim countries. An OIC member introduces a resolution every year condemning "defamation of religions," what U.S. religious freedom groups have called blasphemy laws designed to shield Islam from criticism. The resolutions, which aren't legally binding, condemn "gratuitously offensive attacks" on religions, but the only religion specifically mentioned in the resolutions is Islam.
"Now," Clinton said at the State Department in October, "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. I strongly disagree."
The United Nations General Assembly is scheduled to vote on this year's defamation resolution the second week in December. It's expected to pass, though with fewer votes than last year. The first defamation resolution passed by consensus in 1999, then in landslides for years after, mainly because it was couched as an anti-discrimination resolution nestled among anti-racism resolutions. But in 2001 the United States started voting "no" and began lobbying other countries to join it. Last year, the number of countries supporting the resolution dropped from 108 to 86, meaning the number of "no" votes and abstentions outnumbered the "yes" votes. The resolution still passed because the "yes" votes outnumbered the "noes."
Analysts say some of the countries supporting the measure have not done the research needed to understand it. "Some of these missions are small, they don't have that much staff," explained Lindsay Vessey, with the Christian group Open Doors USA, who was in New York in October to talk to representatives from various countries about the resolution.
Even though the annual resolutions aren't legally binding, opponents have always been worried that the measures would set a precedent and provide language for international laws and treaties, which are binding. This year those fears were heightened when Pakistan and Nigeria drafted a legally binding defamation law at a meeting in Geneva in October to make the resolution a part of the UN charter. That law will go through negotiations and eventually make its way to the General Assembly, though a vote could come up in the spring in the Human Rights Council.
The "no" voters year after year have focused on a fundamental issue: religious freedom. European countries generally have voted with the United States, as well as Canada, Israel, Georgia, and South Korea. Many Latin American and African countries have joined the Islamic countries to give the resolution enough votes to pass. But those votes are slowly peeling off, with Mexico changing sides in 2007 and Chile voting "no" this year. The United States, in turn, hopes those countries can begin lobbying their neighbors, so it doesn't appear that the superpower is muscling countries into voting "no." Some stubbornly remain "yes" votes. Russia and China have supported the resolutions year after year, though neither has special allegiances to the OIC.
And Clinton's remarks, while music to the ears of religious freedom advocates, won't do the heavy lifting required to defeat the resolutions. State Department officials "are clearly not doing enough," said Angela Wu, international law director at the Becket Fund, a religious liberty organization. "I would not dispute that they're working hard. The U.S. is in a difficult position because it's the U.S."
In fact, the State Department may be working at cross-purposes with itself. Religious freedom groups are concerned about the agency's Oct. 2 unveiling of a resolution with Egypt condemning hate speech about religions, a measure they think shilly-shallies around the defamation issue. The resolution, strategically introduced with an Islamic country, addresses religious stereotyping while helping the United States avoid diplomatic "isolation," according to remarks by the State Department's Joseph Cassidy from the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor.
"We really wanted to seize the issue back from the folks who were running this and who were defeating us over and over again," Cassidy said.
Leonard Leo, chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, called the U.S.-Egypt resolution a "Trojan horse" for defamation efforts. Ann Buwalda, director of Jubilee Campaign, said the resolution has her "highly concerned. What are we doing?" The resolution exacerbated anxiety over the Obama administration's commitment to free speech, especially in light of the recently passed hate crimes bill in the U.S. Congress.
In the global debate, the Obama administration has support against the defamation resolutions from a strange alliance of international nongovernmental organizations. Over 100 NGOs-a spectrum of groups from the Baptist World Alliance to the American Humanist Association to the American Islamic Congress-signed a common statement on the matter in November. "From the beginning the issue has made odd bedfellows," said Becket's Wu, adding that she hopes more Muslim American groups sign on.
"United Nations resolutions on the 'defamation of religions' are incompatible with the fundamental freedoms of individuals to freely exercise and peacefully express their thoughts, ideas, and beliefs," the statement reads.
This kind of backing gives the United States some ammunition to win new allies and defeat the resolutions-not this December, but maybe at some future General Assembly. Open Doors' Vessey, for example, worked with other organizations to lobby UN members to vote "no." Whether the country's diplomatic arm remains committed to lobbying countries to vote "no" remains an open question.
"It seems that on this issue the State Department is taking the right stand," said Vessey. "As far as how much they're doing behind the scenes, it's hard to tell."