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President Obama addressing the UN General Assembly
Associated Press/Photo by Seth Wenig
President Obama addressing the UN General Assembly

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Religion | President Obama’s UN speech sends muddled message, as momentum for international blasphemy laws grows

NEW YORK—President Barack Obama addressed the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) Tuesday and sent confusing messages about free speech at a tenuous moment for international blasphemy laws. 

The Obama administration, by most accounts, has been very strong in fighting UN “defamation of religions” resolutions over the past four years (see “Blasphemy revisited,” Sept. 13). But the administration’s response to the inflammatory video, Innocence of Muslims, has been muddy just at a time when the momentum for blasphemy resolutions is growing again. 

The U.S. State Department and various religious freedom groups celebrated last year when the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) didn’t introduce a “defamation of religions” resolution at the UN Human Rights Council for the first time in about a decade. The resolutions, which passed annually and criminalized blasphemy, were nonbinding but helped legitimize oppressive blasphemy laws in Muslim countries like Pakistan. The United States had worked hard to erode support for the defamation resolutions over the course of several years, and had been successful. 

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But now that work may be unraveling. Earlier this week, Emad Abdel Ghaffour, the leader of the Nour Party in Egypt, the second-largest party in Egyptian Parliament after the Muslim Brotherhood, called for new defamation resolutions. Indonesia President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono said he planned to introduce a blasphemy resolution at the UNGA himself. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who currently heads the defamation-sponsoring OIC, said in a speech in Bosnia before the UNGA started that “Islamophobia” should be deemed a “crime against humanity,” according to the Turkish newspaper Today’s Zaman.

“When it is in the form of a provocation, there should be international legal regulations against attacks on what people deem sacred, on religion,” Erdogan said. “Freedom of thought and belief ends where the freedom of thought and belief of others start.”

In his speech Tuesday, President Obama never addressed why the UN should avoid such international blasphemy resolutions, but instead affirmed U.S. laws regarding free speech. 

“I know there are some who ask why we don’t just ban such a video,” he said. “And the answer is enshrined in our laws: Our Constitution protects the right to practice free speech. … Here in the United States, countless publications provoke offense. Like me, the majority of Americans are Christian, and yet we do not ban blasphemy against our most sacred beliefs.” 

Obama called for speech protections, but condemned “blasphemy” in the same breath, sending a confusing message. 

“The strongest weapon against hateful speech is not repression,” he said. “It is more speech. The voices of tolerance that rally against bigotry and blasphemy, and lift up the values of understanding and mutual respect. Now, I know that not all countries in this body share this particular understanding of the protection of free speech. We recognize that.” But he added, “There is no speech that justifies mindless violence.”

Another line further confused the president’s point about free speech.

“The future must not belong to those who slander the prophet of Islam,” he said. “But to be credible, those who condemn that slander must also condemn the hate we see in the images of Jesus Christ that are desecrated, or churches that are destroyed, or the Holocaust that is denied.” 

After his speech at the UN, Obama returned directly to Washington. He did have what the White House described as “courtesy-call meetings” with Secretary General of the UN Ban Ki-moon and the new UN President Vuk Jeremic. Obama held no bilateral meetings with any world leaders present, which is unusual because at the last UNGA he met with 13 world leaders, according to CBS’ Mark Knoller, who keeps records of such things.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with the prime minister of Lebanon, who asked her about defamation resolutions, according to the State Department, which didn’t elaborate on what the question was. Clinton walked through “our perspective and our arguments,” the department said. 

Emily Belz
Emily Belz

Emily, who has covered everything from political infighting to pet salons for The Indianapolis Star, The Hill, and the New York Daily News, reports for WORLD from New York City. Follow Emily on Twitter @emzleb.

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