GENEVA – Nations attacked the West for wrongly associating Islam with terrorism at a June 19-21 international conference in Geneva organized by the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, part of the U.S.-Turkish led “Istanbul Process,” an intended Western-Islamic framework for détente created by a 2011 UN Human Rights Council resolution to “combat intolerance, discrimination and incitement to hatred and/or violence on the basis of religion or belief.”
The 3rd International Expert Meeting on the Follow-Up and Implementation of HRC Resolution 16/18 was held at the United Nations headquarters in Geneva. The previous meeting of the Istanbul Proces was hosted by then U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Washington, D.C., in December 2011.
Critics say the resolution and its follow-up process have seen the U.S. legitimize the longstanding Islamic campaign at the UN to ban “defamation of religion,” only with different terminology.
A central theme of the conference was how to balance freedom of speech with freedom of religion. Many countries argued for protecting “religious sensitivities.” Indonesia stated that freedom of speech is not absolute, and that it must come with restrictions based on legitimate grounds.
Egypt said that freedom of opinion is a manifestation of social freedoms – and is therefore the mother of all rights – but that the freedom of religion must also be considered in light of basic human rights, given the fact that Articles 19 and 20 of the ICCPR impose duties and responsibilities.
Mr. Taskin Soykan, an adviser on combating intolerance and discrimination against Muslims at the OSCE, said that freedom of religion is “sacrosanct but not absolute,” and that individuals have responsibilities in exercising the right.
Western states emphasized the need to protect free speech. United States Ambassador Eileen Donahoe paraphrased Hillary Clinton: ‘Is our faith so weak that we can’t discuss and question it?:
US Ambassador Michael G. Kozak touched on America’s historical familiarity with blasphemy laws. He cited the 1798 “Alien and Sedition Acts” that facilitated deportation and prohibited public opposition to government. Mr. Kozak made the point that intolerance is often more likely to be stifled by protecting free speech rather than by banning it, and expressed his hope that focus would remain on how to better implement the prescriptions currently contained in Resolution 16/18, instead of adding new measures designed to further restrict free speech. When free speech is criminalized, violence becomes the only option. Freedom of expression and freedom of religion could strengthen one another.
At other times in the session, however, Western governments seemed more concerned to reassure religious sensitivities than to defend free speech.
The US reminded the conference that both President Obama and former Secretary of State Clinton had spoken out against the Innocence of Muslims film of last year, whose depiction of Islam’s prophet was invoked as Muslims worldwide rioted and caused over 50 deaths.
Another topic of concern was the image globally projected of Islam and its frequent association with violence. Muslim panelists and member-state representatives insisted on the inherently peaceful character of their personal faith and state religion.
Slimane Chikh, Ambassador of the OIC’s UN mission in Geneva, stressed that Islam is a religion that accepts dissent.
In a debate on the implementation of Paragraph 5 (e) of Resolution 16/18, Ambassador Ömür Orhun, the Permanent Representative of Turkey to the OSCE, regretted use of the term “Islamic terrorism” by the Western media following terrorist attacks like the 2005 London bombings. “There is no such thing as Islamic terrorism,” he said.
US Ambassador Kozak responded that terrorists are often labeled as such in Western countries precisely because this is what they term themselves. Most “Islamic terrorists” are self-proclaimed as such. To successfully disassociate Islam from terrorism, the OIC would need to address such issues.
There was disagreement over what violent incidents can be attributed to “Islamophobia.” The OIC’s Slimane Chikh listed the 2011 Norway attack by Anders Breivik among recent terrorist events motivated by Islamophobic sentiments.
The following day, during a panel discussion on the implementation of Paragraph 5 (h) of Resolution 16/18, UN expert Doudou Diène mentioned the Norwegian attacks in the same breath as the Srebrenica massacre, in which Bosnian Muslims were deliberately targeted as part of a campaign of ethnic cleansing. In the subsequent open forum, the Italian representative denounced the association, saying that the Norwegian slaughter included victims from the perpetrator’s own country and ethnicity, and that simply sourcing such an atrocity to a Western identity crisis in general, and Islamophobia in particular, would be inappropriate and misleading.
Concerns were also voiced that the OIC tends to be preoccupied with offences committed against Muslims abroad without paying attention to discrimination and incitement to hatred against minorities in Muslim-majority countries. In discussing the need to “adjust to changing realities,” the representative of Pakistan invoked recent media coverage of U Wirathu, dubbed ‘the face of Buddhist terror’ by Time magazine, who was also featured in the International Herald Tribune of that day.
Regrettably, the conference turned a blind eye to terrorism committed by Islamist extremists even as it met. On June 19th, the conference’s opening day, The Times reported that 16 students had been shot dead in Nigeria by suspected Islamist terrorist group Boko Haram, whose name roughly translates as “Western education is sin.”
Suggestions were given on how to move forward with the Istanbul Process. One was that an international observatory, in the form of an “umbrella NGO,” should be set up to supervise the implementation of Resolution 16/18. This arose in response to qualms that most NGOs focusing on this area are based in the West – even Muslim-oriented think-tanks tend to be subsidiaries of larger Western organizations, it was said.
US Ambassador Kozak suggested that establishing a further international observatory was unnecessary, since the straightforward task of implementing the Resolution’s existing measures had not yet been achieved by most member states under its current supervisory circumstances. Russia also expressed some apprehension towards the idea, adding that member states should be weary of multiplying the number of international mechanisms with similar purposes, to avoid duplicating work.
On the third and final day, States gave closing remarks. US Ambassador Kozak warned against the dangers of spending too much time on technical debates
regarding the definition of “incitement” and other such terms instead of focusing on actual instances of violence. He also expressed concern that the conference’s overall narrative was unhelpfully framed in terms of “the West versus the rest,” with prime focus on the West’s failure to enact prohibitions on free speech; and this despite the fact that the countries where the most religious violence takes place tend to be those that have blasphemy laws in place.
Pakistan reacted indignantly, dismissing the Muslims in America that had been cited by the US delegation as having praised American tolerance as merely “rented Muslims” – a term that Ambassador Kozak rejected.
In stressing the conference’s value, Turkey pointed out that there already exists a Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religious or Belief (Mr. Heiner Bielefeld), and that while another Special Rapporteur could well be introduced to monitor hate crime and hate speech, the OIC preferred the route of dialogue, of which the conference should serve as an example.
OIC Secretary-General Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu commented on how the media can unfairly distort perceptions on both sides. Western media tends to highlight the reaction of radical Imams and their fellow religious fundamentalists, while Muslims worldwide are exposed exclusively to the likes of the Koran-burning pastor. He called for the media to address the issue, and also for a fixed agenda to emerge in order to prevent future summits from descending into circularity and repetition.