Muslims nations: Defame Islam, get sued?
By RUKMINI CALLIMACHI, Associated Press Writer
DAKAR, Senegal - The Muslim world has created a battle plan to defend its religion from political cartoonists and bigots.
Concerned about what they see as a rise in the defamation of Islam, leaders of the world's Muslim nations are considering taking legal action against those that slight their religion or its sacred symbols. It was a key issue during a two-day summit that ended Friday in this western Africa capital.
The Muslim leaders are attempting to demand redress from nations like Denmark, which allowed the publication of cartoons portraying the Prophet Muhammad in 2006 and again last month, to the fury of the Muslim world.
Though the legal measures being considered have not been spelled out, the idea pits many Muslims against principles of freedom of speech enshrined in the constitutions of numerous Western governments.
"I don't think freedom of expression should mean freedom from blasphemy," said Senegal's President Abdoulaye Wade, the chairman of the 57-member Organization of the Islamic Conference. "There can be no freedom without limits."
Delegates were given a voluminous report by the OIC that recorded anti-Islamic speech and actions from around the world. The report concludes that Islam is under attack and that a defense must be mounted.
"Muslims are being targeted by a campaign of defamation, denigration, stereotyping, intolerance and discrimination," charged Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, the secretary general of the group.
The report urges the creation of a "legal instrument" to crack down on defamation of Islam. Some delegates point to laws in Europe criminalizing the denial of the Holocaust and other anti-Semitic rhetoric. They also point to articles within various U.N. charters that condemn discrimination based on religion and argue that these should be ramped up.
"In our relation with the western world, we are going through a difficult time," Ihsanoglu told the summit's general assembly. "Islamophobia cannot be dealt with only through cultural activities but (through) a robust political engagement."
The International Humanist and Ethical Union in Geneva released a statement accusing the Islamic states of attempting to limit freedom of expression and of attempting to misuse the U.N.
Human Rights Watch said in a statement that objectionable depictions of the Prophet Muhammad do not "give them the right under international human rights law to insist that others abide by their views."
Hemayet Uddin, the lead author of the OIC report and head of cultural affairs for the group said legal action is needed because "this Islamophobia that we see in the world has gone far beyond a phobia. It is now at the level of hatred, of xenophobia, and we need to act."
A new charter drafted by the OIC commits the Muslim body "to protect and defend the true image of Islam" and "to combat the defamation of Islam."
To protect the faith, Muslim nations have created an "observatory" that meets regularly to monitor Islamophobia. It examines lectures and workshops taking place around the world and prints a monthly record of offensive content.
But some of the summit's delegates said a legal approach would be over the top.
"My general view would be that the confrontational approach is one my country would avoid," said Bangladeshi Foreign Minister Iftekhar Chowdhruy. Bangladesh is 90 percent Muslim.
While the Muslim world worries about the image of Islam in the West, the U.S. envoy to the OIC attended the summit to try to tackle the thorny question of America's image among Muslim states.
Sada Cumber calls his campaign the "soft power" of the U.S. — an effort to find common ground with Muslim nations by championing universal values the U.S. holds dear like religious tolerance and freedom of speech.
"America has a deep respect for the religion of Islam," Cumber told The Associated Press. "The freedom of faith that we exercise, that we enjoy in America, that is also a very important aspect of the American core values. Anyone who wants to practice any faith is never stopped or discouraged."
Also during the summit, Chad and Sudan signed a peace agreement to stop incursions of rebels across each other's borders, and the summit delegates committed themselves to addressing the spiraling violence between Israelis and Palestinians.
Associated Press Writer Heidi Vogt contributed to this report