The State Department should Leave the Istanbul Process

It is no accident that the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution states, "Congress shall make no law ...abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press." It is also no accident that there is no such absolute provision in the Arab and Islamic world. On the contrary, for at least fifteen years a concerted effort has been made by Islamic organizations, particularly the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) to prevent or limit criticism of Islam and the Prophet.

This effort of the OIC has led to calls for controls of free speech in democratic countries as well as implementation of repression in its own member states. Although this OIC objective and its consequences have become familiar, it is puzzling that the Obama Administration, and Hillary Clinton, while Secretary of State, did not resist it but rather seemed to compromise with it.

It should have been obvious that major international organs have been manipulated by the OIC to suppress speech. Each year from 1999 until 2010, one of the countries of the 57 member-state OIC, often Pakistan, has proposed resolutions in the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) and in the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) outlawing "defamation of religions." Rather than protection of religions in general the intent of all the resolutions that have been passed is to declare criticism of Islam illegal and therefore punishable. More recently, OIC-inspired resolutions have condemned and called for penalization of what they term "Islamophobia."

However, the number of states approving such resolutions has been declining. The OIC is aware of the fact that democratic countries have become alert to the fact that infringements of free speech result from any implementation of supposed "defamation" resolutions.

In 2011 the OIC, attempting to overcome criticism of its tactics, no longer used the concept of "defamation of religions." It modified its extremist rhetoric, but not its objective. On March 24, 2011 at the UNHRC, the OIC introduced Resolution 16/18. The Resolution was worded and then revised to make it more acceptable to the U.S. It avoided "defamation" and instead called for "fighting against intolerance, negative stereotyping, stigmatization, discrimination, incitement to violence and violence against individuals because of their religion or belief." It seemingly appeared to be concerned with individuals, rather than a religion. The OIC tactic was successful. The Resolution, which is nonbinding, was adopted by consensus.

What is important was the next step, the creation of "The Istanbul Process" at a meeting in Istanbul in July 2011 initiated by Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, Secretary-General of the OIC, with the assistance of Hillary Clinton and Catherine Ashton, European Union (EU) Foreign Representative. For Mr. Ihsanoglu the intent of the "Process" is to implement 16/18, which he views not as an end in itself but a means to an end. He was particularly concerned with what he called the "increasing trend of Islamophobia ... and the increase in intolerance and discrimination against Muslims." For the OIC an international blasphemy law was needed.

At the Istanbul meeting, Clinton applauded the OIC and the EU for helping pass 16/18. She spoke of it beginning to overcome "the false divide that pits religious sensitivities against freedom of expression." She also remarked that 16/18 was intended to "prohibit discrimination, profiling, and hate crimes, but not to criminalize speech unless there is an incitement to imminent violence."

Commendable though the intent of Clinton's remarks may be, they misunderstand the objective of OIC which calls for "a global awareness of the dangerous implications of the rise of Islamophobia on world peace and security." Seemingly innocuous, the OIC calls on countries "to promote respect for all religious and cultural values and prevent intolerance, discrimination and the instigation of hatred against any group or followers of any religion." But the OIC should examine itself and acknowledge that most of its members do not allow freedom of speech or religion to non-Muslims within its own borders. It is disheartening to read of Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan's absurd remark in September 2012 that the West has not recognized Islamophobia as a "crime against humanity."

What is unsaid is the fact that the OIC does not subscribe to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the UNGA on December 10, 1948. Instead, it subscribes to two other documents. One is the September 19, 1981 OIC Universal Islamic Declaration of Human Rights which is based on the "Koran and the Sunnah." The other is the Cairo Declaration of Human Rights in Islam, adopted on August 5, 1990 by the OIC 19th Islamic Conference of Foreign Ministers. The key clause is Article 24: "All the rights and freedoms stipulated in the Declaration are subject to the Islamic Shariah." This does not suggest protection of free speech and religion in non-Muslim countries, but rather their suppression. It appears to violate both the 1st Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (Article 19), signed December 1966, that declares, "everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression."

The "Istanbul Process" was continued in December 2011 at a closed meeting at the State Department in Washington, D.C. So far no word has leaked about the nature of the meeting. A third meeting was held in Geneva in June 2013. At this stage no agreement on action has been reached, nor has the tension between acting against discrimination and preservation of free speech been resolved. It is unlikely that the Process will be of any value in this regard.

It is time for the U.S. State Department and the Obama Administration as a whole to be conscious of the assault by the OIC on human rights and free expression. The Department and the White House must reconsider whether it serves the cause of such freedoms for the U.S. to continue its association with this anti-democratic Istanbul Process.

Michael Curtis is author of Jews, Antisemitism, and the Middle East.

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