How American ideals won in Qur’an burning controversy

By Tad Stahnke Recently, anti-Muslim incidents in the United States sparked deadly protests in Afghanistan, marches in India and Indonesia, … Continued

By Tad Stahnke

Recently, anti-Muslim incidents in the United States sparked deadly protests in Afghanistan, marches in India and Indonesia, and the burning of Israeli and American flags in Iran and Pakistan. General Petraeus spoke out to remind Americans that actions here in the United States directly impact our ability to achieve our objectives overseas. His message was clear: the world is watching what we do. Fortunately, with the spotlight upon us, we have some positive lessons to share with the rest of the world about what an effective response to bigotry and hate speech looks like. And these lessons are particularly relevant as the UN General Assembly takes up again efforts to establish a global code against blasphemy.

For over a decade, Pakistan, Egypt and some other predominantly Muslim countries have successfully promoted resolutions at the United Nations which argue that it is necessary to criminalize anti-religious hate speech (or “defamation”) in order to protect freedom of religion. It would be tempting to view recent anti-Muslim incidents as evidence of why such legislation is needed.

In reality, criminalizing speech damages rather than advances efforts to combat religious intolerance. Such laws are all too often abused to stifle debate and dissent and can have devastating consequences for those holding religious views that differ from the majority religion. Journalists, bloggers, teachers, students, poets, religious converts and other individuals have been targeted, charged and sentenced to prison or received other punishments simply for exercising their right to freedom of expression.

The response to the aborted Koran burning event demonstrates how non-legal measures can effectively and successfully confront and counteract hatred and intolerance.

For starters, America’s leaders got this one right. They affirmed their commitment to tolerance and diversity and ultimately drowned out the hateful rhetoric of an isolated extremist. Political, religious, and other leaders, including President Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, General David Petraeus, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, Florida Governor Charlie Crist, and many others presented a clear message and a unified front against the Koran burning.

These high profile messages were joined by the voices of ordinary citizens and local political and religious leaders who successfully worked together to affirm religious solidarity. For example, in Gainesville, Florida more than 20 religious organizations united in hosting a series of interfaith events incorporating Muslim, Jewish, and Christian scriptures into worship services focused on peace and understanding. Members of the Gainesville community were also encouraged to attend a candlelight vigil and Iftar celebrations.

Their efforts ultimately led the Mayor of Gainesville to declare September 11th, the day of the planned Koran burning, as “Interfaith Solidarity Day” in the community. He also issued a statement condemning the “offensive behavior that has been directed at Muslim neighbors and those of the Islamic faith worldwide.” Ultimately, they won. The planned “Burn a Koran Day” was cancelled.

Inspired by the success of efforts targeting the proposed Koran burning in Florida, communities and groups throughout the United States confronting similar anti-Muslim incidents have also united in opposition to intolerance.

Restricting speech is not the answer to fighting bigotry and hatred. What we need more of is condemnation of acts of hatred, as well as effective policies of inclusion, equality and protection of fundamental rights and freedoms.

Instead of creating internationally binding obligations that aim to criminalize the “defamation of religions,” politicians should confront hate speech and efforts to defame religions with the mightiest weapon in their arsenal–their voices.

Tad Stahnke is the Director of Policy and Programs at Human Rights First.

Tad Stahnke
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  • WmarkW

    And those Pakistanis in the photo are not engaged in hate speech because…?The Quran contains many pre-modern ideas about personal behavior and the conduct of an ideal society. A non-trivial number of earth use those ideas still today and commit atrocities using the Quran as their justification. If I burned a copy of Mein Kampf at a counter-rally to a Nazi demonstration, you wouldn’t call that a despicable act of hate.Those Pakistanis are burning our flag because it will prompt some Americans to ask “have we done something to anger them?” WE need to get THEIR attention to ask “What is it about the Quran that bothers them?”

  • habibbarri

    The danger of criminalising talk about religion is exemplified by an incident in Egypt last week reported by the Pakistani Christian Post. Bishop Bishoy, secretary of the Coptic Church’s Holy Synod caused a Muslim furore when the media published excerpts from a lecture he was due to give later to the clergy during the “Coptic Faith” Seminar held in Fayoum, south of Cairo.”He was questioning whether some verses inferring that ‘Christians were infidels’ were added to the Qur’an after the death of Prophet Muhammad by one of his successor Caliph Uthman ibn Affan (644-656), suggesting that they may have been inserted for religious/political purposes…Angry Muslims considered his queries about the time frame of these verses as accusations that the Qur’an was distorted, since they believe that all verses were received by Muhammad through the Angel Gabriel during his lifetime and that the words have remained undistorted since then…Bishop Bishoy told the clergy audience in Fayoum that his questions were merely about the time of the verses, which say ‘Verily they are disbelievers and infidels who say ‘The Messiah, son of Mary, is God.” (Qur’an 5:17). He believes these verses contradict the Christian faith. ‘I don’t understand how that can be turned into an attack on Islam,’ he said, insisting that his remarks had been taken out of context…Members of al-Azhar University’s Islamic Research Council held an emergency meeting led by the institution’s head, Grand Imam Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, repudiating Bishop Bishoy’s comments and accusing him of provoking sectarian tension.A ‘Statement to the Nation’ was released by the Council. The Statement … said that the Council stresses the fact that Egypt is an ‘Islamic State’ according to the text of its Constitution, which represents the social contract between its people. ‘From this stems the rights of citizenship, as taught to us by the Messenger of Allah in his pact with the Christians of Najran, in which he decided that they were to enjoy rights and duties as the Muslims. However, these rights are conditional to respect for the Islamic Identity and the citizenship rights as set by the Constitution.’The Christians of Najran, Medina, refused conversion to Islam in 631 A.D. and offered Mohamed to maintain their faith, accept the dominance of Muslims and pay an annual tribute (the jizya), he accepted and the pact was sealed between them.Magdy Khalil, head of the Middle East Freedom Forum, issued a press release saying the Al-Azhar’s ‘Statement to the Nation’ brings us back to the era of Dhimmitude. He thinks this statement, which is addressed to the Islamic nation and Muslims in Egypt and abroad, undermines completely the concept of modern citizenship, replacing it with their perception of an alternative Islamic citizenship, which corresponds to that promoted by various groups of political Islam.”So much for an Islamic acceptance of freedom of speech!

  • abrahamhab1

    “Magdy Khalil, head of the Middle East Freedom Forum, issued a press release saying the Al-Azhar’s(Muslim’s Vatican)Statement to the Nation(Egypt) brings us back to the era of Dhimmitude.”Dhimmitude is policy for treatment of Christians and Jews under Muslim rule. It is a creative policy to humiliate, subjugate and along with the inordinate head tax called Jizya to impoverish the non-Muslims so as to “peaceablyā€¯ convert. It was very successful. In Egypt 90% converted to Islam. In the North African countries of Morocco, Tunis, Libya and Algiers the conversion was 100%. The Constitution of this Dhimmitude policy was codified in what is known as the “Omar Pact” linked below.