A United Nations anti-blasphemy policy? Not so fast

The News TribuneSeptember 27, 2012 

At the United Nations on Tuesday, President Obama put it as clearly and well: Freedom isn’t just an American or Western value – it’s a universal value.

That’s the right response to the insanity that’s been raging through the Islamic world since a vulgar anti-Muslim video gave jihadists another opening to whip up anti-American anger.

The video was merely pretext. If it weren’t that, it would have been something else. The same rage has erupted time after time over cartoons and other insults to Muhammad or Islam. The spectacle is getting very, very old.

The Islamists’ dirty little secret is that their own clerics and other leaders have themselves been disseminating the attacks on Islam – by broadcasting them, posting them online, advertising them and otherwise amplifying them.

In fact, nearly all of the casualties – beyond the U.S. ambassador to Libya and several others – have been Muslims. On Friday alone, in Pakistan alone, anti-blasphemy riots left 19 dead and 160 injured. You would think that people with such self-proclaimed devotion to Islam would show more concern for common believers.

This is ultimately a power play. The murderous rampages intimidate the extremists’ political and religious opponents.

Those opponents are numerous, as evidenced by the backlash and the condemnations of fanaticism, in Libya, Egypt, Syria and elsewhere. Unfortunately, a faction willing to mob and threaten its political adversaries is often able to dominate a government and seize control of a country, as witness the Nazis who deployed brown-shirted street-brawlers to do just that in Germany.

This latest wave of violence has stampeded some normally reasonable Muslim leaders into calling for tougher anti-blasphemy measures – not just in their own countries, but throughout the world. Pakistani Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf and others have begun pushing for the United Nations to ban attacks on religion.

Somehow, attacks on Christianity, Buddhism or Hinduism never seem to elicit the same level of concern. Efforts to outlaw blasphemy usually have the same subtext: My religion gets protected; yours doesn’t.

Talk about a U.N. policy demands pushback, which is what made Obama’s forceful comments about free speech so welcome.

Freedom of belief and speech are not accidents of Western culture; they belong to the entire human race.

Europe and the Americas learned the value of tolerance and unrestricted religious (or anti-religious) expression the hard way, through millennia of persecutions, crusades and executions of heretics.

What the blasphemy-banners want doesn’t work. Government controls on belief or unbelief beget unending rounds of repression, mutual fear and sectarian violence. This is one thing the West has gotten absolutely right. The values of freedom shouldn’t merely be defended; they should be asserted.

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