Will the United States follow the UN’s lead and go the way of Europe and Canada in appeasing politicized sensitivities?
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The bulk of the report instead focuses on “Islamophobic incidents” constituted by the “spate of insulting cartoons, caricatures, writings and mockery of Islam” in Western media. The first example: Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali refugee who served for three years in the Dutch Parliament, published opinion pieces in the New York Times and Washington Post that the Observatory judged to be “insulting to the sentiments of Muslims.” Item 14 calls attention to another “blasphemous caricature of Prophet Muhammad” in a “Swedish provincial newspaper published alongside an editorial on freedom of expression.” By item 18, the Observatory is trying to focus international outrage on the Internet posting of one Alex Epstein, “a junior fellow at the Ayn Rand Institute in Irvine, California,” for his claim that “hatred of America is irrational and undeserved.
II. The Campaign in Europe
It’s tempting to dismiss the worldview of the OIC as alien. It’s easy to dismiss its success at the UN as predictable effusions from an organization that lets repressive governments dominate human rights debates. To their credit, European representatives have raised questions about the recent trend of these debates and voted against the more crudely worded resolutions. But they have not threatened to abandon the Human Rights Council if the trend is not reversed—as the United States has already done. Europe’s policy has been to meet the demands of the OIC halfway.
The European Union established a Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia in 1997. A year after the controversy over the Danish cartoons, it published a report on “Muslims in the European Union—Discrimination and Islamophobia.” The violent response to the cartoon showed, according to the report, “the pivotal importance of intercultural respect.” It acknowledged that “freedom of expression is part of the principles and values that the EU was founded upon” but also affirmed “certain limits…to protect other fundamental rights.” There isn’t even a conflict or strain between them: “Freedom of expression and the protection against racist and xenophobic language can, and have to, go hand-in-hand—the two together make democracy meaningful.”
It tells much about the atmosphere in Europe that the report, in over a hundred pages, nowhere tries to explain the difference between permissible discussion of religious differences and “racist and xenophobic language.” It acknowledges that the term Islamophobia “has been criticized by a number of commentators”—but then reassures readers that “Muslim and human rights organizations have argued that the presence of Islamophobic sentiments and action is a real problem that needs addressing.” How to tell whether a given “action” is “Islamophobic” rather than merely rowdy or thuggish?
In the section urging coordination of crime statistics, it urges that “a victim’s perception of a crime as ‘Islamophic’ is the first step toward acknowledging that an incident might be Islamophobic”— but never gets around to explaining the second step. It affirms that “fundamental principles…must be respected,” including “the equal right of women to make individual choices in all walks of life.” Then it acknowledges that “efforts to protect those principles may at times clash with the perception of certain individuals or faith groups.” The way forward is “to ensure that a potential critical stance toward certain religious manifestations respects the principle of equal treatment.”
Shortly after the publication of this very tactful report, the Monitoring Centre was relaunched as the “Fundamental Rights Agency”—promising that “the fight against racism, xenophobia and related intolerance will be at the heart of FRA’s activities.” So the EU’s commitment to freedom of expression will be left to an agency whose core concern is battling “racism,” and the most pressing “racism,” in its view, is “Islamophobia.”
It’s true that the EU has not been centrally concerned with human rights protection in the past. That has been left to the Council of Europe, which embraces all EU states but also nearly all other European nations. It has not, however, been much more steadfast. Last year, the council called on all member states “to be vigilant in their work to prevent and combat the phenomenon of Islamophobia” by, among other things, measures to “encourage the promotion of fair coverage of Muslim reality and views in the media.”
Might there be some tension between “vigilant” efforts to “prevent Islamophobia” and guarantees of free speech? The Council of Europe sponsors a European Convention on Human Rights, interpreted and enforced by a Court of Human Rights. In 1994, the court endorsed the action of the Austrian government in seizing a film that was deemed to contain blasphemous mockery of Jesus and Mary:
“In seizing the film, the Austrian authorities acted to ensure religious peace…and to prevent that some people should feel the object of attacks on their religious beliefs in an unwarranted and offensive manner.” Advocates for an “Islamic perspective on human rights” have already drawn attention to the relevance of this ruling to current concerns. No case has yet qualified the open-ended reasoning of this ruling.
Nor is there a strong tradition of free speech advocacy within national parliaments or national courts. Laws against incitement to hatred have been on the books in most Western European countries sine the 1970s. In Italy, journalist Oriana Fallaci, internationally respected for her probing interviews with world leaders, was subject to prosecution for warning that Islamic immigrants were undermining Europe’s culture of open debate. She died of cancer in 2006 before the case could be resolved, but other prominent and mainstream writers have been caught up in harassing claims in France and other countries.
Meanwhile, the threat of violence hovers in the background. As the OIC Observatory reports (with some satisfaction), the OIC’s Secretary General protested to the Dutch government in November 2007 after Dutch parliamentarian Geert Wilders announced that he was making a film critical of the Koran. Within weeks, the Dutch foreign minister had arranged to meet with the OIC’s Secretary General to assure him that the government “condemns such activities in the strongest possible terms,” would try to stop the broadcast of the film in the Netherlands, and if the film “violates Dutch laws” would assure that “the parliamentarian would be prosecuted.” In return, the Dutch government “appealed to the OIC Secretary General for his help and cooperation so that the film does not hurt the Dutch interests in the Muslim world.”
Pushing back against the OIC’s campaign is not Europe’s agenda.
III. Saved by the First Amendment?
Will this tide reach America? One thing is for sure, it is no longer an ocean away. Like most countries in Europe, Canada has had laws against hate speech since the 1970s, enforced by provincial human rights commissions with procedures that make it quite easy to launch charges of improper speech. In 2007, the Ontario Commission, acting on complaints by the Canadian Islamic Congress, opened an investigation of Maclean’s magazine (Canada’s largest-circulation news magazine) for publishing excerpts of Mark Steyn’s book America Alone. A similar investigation was launched by the Alberta Human Rights Commission against the much smaller Western Standard for publishing the Danish cartoons in 2006, along with a commentary on free speech. These cases stirred enough angry debate in Canada—where no one ever seems to get angry—that the Ontario Commission dropped the Steyn case without any action this past summer. Prominent Canadian politicians have called for repealing hate speech laws. But B’nai Brith Canada issued a report last summer that strongly condemned abusive investigations like those against Maclean’s, but still insisted hate speech laws were needed to protect against Holocaust deniers and white supremacists. Muslim advocacy groups won’t be the only defenders of Canada’s existing network of speech controls, which have long been endorsed by the Canadian Supreme Court.
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