Defending Free Speech Leaves Top Obama Department of Justice Official Speechless

Republican Congressman Trent Franks (AZ-02) has posted a revealing YouTube segment of his questioning of Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Thomas Perez in the House of Representatives on July 26, 2012.  Franks repeatedly asked Perez whether the Obama administration's Department of Justice "will never entertain or advance a proposal that criminalizes speech against any religion."  Rather than expressing a clear opposition to any such proposal contravening the free speech principles enshrined in the American Constitution's First Amendment, Perez continually asked for contextual clarification of the question and specific examples of policy proposals that he could "actively review."

Perez's less than resounding defense of American first principles and freedoms is troubling in light of the Obama administration's overtures towards the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), a 57-member (including, somewhat dubiously, Palestine) international grouping of Muslim-majority states.  In particular, the Obama administration supports implementation of the United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC)'s Resolution 16/18 within the framework of the Istanbul Process, begun at an international July 15, 2011, conference hosted in that city by the OIC, as discussed by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at a follow-on Washington, DC, conference on December 14, 2011.  The State Department describes the "consensus adoption" of this resolution concerning "Combating Intolerance, Negative Stereotyping and Stigmatization of, and Discrimination, Incitement to Violence and Violence Against, Persons Based on Religion or Belief" on March 24, 2011, and the subsequent adoption in November 2011 by the full United Nations General Assembly of a similar resolution, as a "breakthrough."  The State Department proclaims that Resolution 16/18 "focuses on concrete, positive measures that states can take to combat religious intolerance rather than legal measures to restrict speech" and that "[a]ll of the steps called for are consistent with longstanding U.S. law and practice."

Obama administration critics such as the religious freedom scholar Nina Shea are not so sure.  Resolution 16/18, they note, replaces a 12-year-old "dangerous idea" by the Saudi Arabian-headquartered OIC to effectuate a "universal blasphemy law" through resolutions in forums like the HRC under the guise of "defamation of religion" in order "to punish public expression of apostasy from Islam and 'Islamophobia.'"  A "deft State Department maneuver" means that the resulting "Resolution 16/18 deplores religious intolerance but doesn't limit speech."

Nonetheless, the OIC has not given up its long-term objective, as its statement in Istanbul describing the upcoming Washington conference of officials from various justice and homeland security ministries around the world indicated.  This conference would, according to an OIC press release, "help in enacting domestic laws for the countries involved in the issue, as well as formulating international laws preventing inciting hatred resulting from the continued defamation of religions."  OIC Secretary General Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu of Turkey, in his December 12, 2011, opening letter to the Washington conference, also called upon it "to squarely address and develop a common understanding on some of the grey areas" such as the "exact nature and scope of the complementarities between the freedom of opinion and expression and the prohibition of incitement to hatred on racial, national and religious grounds." 

Resolution 16/18 itself, meanwhile, could also be ambiguous.  On the one hand, it states that "open public debate of ideas ... can be among the best protections against religious intolerance and can play a positive role in strengthening democracy and combating religious hatred."  The resolution's preamble also reaffirms the International Covenant on Civil and Political Right (ICCR)'s stipulation that "everyone shall have ... freedom of thought, conscience and religion," including the "freedom to have or to adopt a religion" and to "manifest" religion "in public."  Yet, on the other hand, the resolution also makes note of the "agendas pursued by extremist organizations ... aimed at creating and perpetuating negative stereotypes about religious groups" and calls for "effective measures" by states "consistent with their obligations under international human rights law" to counter "advocacy of religious hatred against individuals that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence."  As has become obvious in recent years, organizations like the OIC, with its Islamophobia Observatory, could have quite distinctly Islamophilic interpretations of such phrases.

Perez himself received an intimation of what "Islamophobia" could mean in the wrong hands at an October 19, 2011 George Washington University conference.  Without any critical commentary from Perez, the female Egyptian-American lawyer Sahar Aziz declared "with utter honesty" that the "top of the line" civil rights lawyers in Perez's Department of Justice section could "come up with a way" to redefine criticism of Islam as discrimination.  Mohamed Magid, president of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), also equated at the conference criticism of Islam with "religious bigotry and hate" before receiving an embrace from Perez at conference's end.  In ISNA, the Sudanese-born and orthodox Saudi Islamic seminary graduate Magid heads an organization termed by the federal government in 2009 as an unindicted co-conspirator in the successful prosecution of two men who smuggled $12 million to the terrorist organization Hamas.

As Shea noted, Perez also remained silent with respect to Islamic religious repression during his opening remarks to the Washington conference on December 12, 2011.  As Shea criticized, Perez gave before conference participants "representing the world's most repressive states" a "one-sided historical depiction of American bigotry against religious minorities" without reference to America's "relatively exemplary achievement of upholding individual freedoms ... in an overwhelmingly tolerant and pluralistic society."  Perez then concluded that "we can learn much from each other" with regard to the protection of religious freedom.

As Shea criticizes, American interaction with the OIC on issues of freedom of religion and speech "will only intensify" for America the "pressure to conform" to a "new global 'best practice'" manifested in places like Western Europe and Canada to "regulate speech on behalf of Islam."  The American reverence for individual liberty indicated by Franks's questioning, though, will most likely frustrate any erosion of human rights in the United States due to militant Muslim encroachments, no matter the amount of pandering to Islamic groups by the Obama administration.  For freedom beyond America's shores, however, the uncertain trumpet blown by Perez and other Obama administration officials diminishes the United States' global role as a leading light of liberty.  American-OIC cooperation "appears to validate the OIC agenda, thus demoralizing the legions of women's rights and human-rights advocates, bloggers, journalists, minorities, converts, reformers and others in OIC states who look to the United States for support against oppression."  As Franks concluded after his inconclusive questioning of Perez, when the Department of Justice cannot make a clear commitment to constitutional principles of freedom, come what may in the form of future proposals, "it's pretty late in the day."