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Cartoons stir Muslim push for 'hatred' ban

Deep-seated Muslim anger at efforts to satirize Prophet Muhammad in Danish cartoons stirred the IOC to propose a ban against incitement of religious hatred.

Deep-seated anger among Muslims at continued efforts to satirize Prophet Muhammad in Danish cartoons stirred the second largest inter-governmental organization after the United Nations to propose an international legal ban against the incitement of religious hatred.

The Saudi-based Organization of Islamic Cooperation, or OIC, with 57 member nations, issued a strong condemnation of plans by Dutch parliament member Geert Wilders, founder of his nation's anti-Islam Freedom Party, for a cartoon competition to portray the Prophet Muhammad later this year.

The Koran does not explicitly forbid images of Allah or Prophet Muhammad, but some language suggests that any attempts to capture their grandeur will fall insultingly short. Some verses also suggest that portraying Prophet Muhammad will only lead to idolatry: worship for the messenger, or for a picture, statue or other material object, rather than for Allah.

Because of this, Islamic tradition and the Hadith — which represents the words and deeds of the Prophet Muhammad and his companions — prohibits images of Allah and all major religious prophets.

Wilders, a far-right populist politician convicted by a Dutch court in 2016 for inciting discrimination and insulting Moroccans, announced on May 17 that in the spirit of free speech he would hold a contest to draw the best cartoon of the central figure and chief prophet of the Islamist religion. Many Sunni Muslims and Ahmadi Muslims believe Prophet Muhammad should not be visually depicted.

Wilders appealed his conviction and won a request for new judges. He got no punishment for comments that judges said were insulting to Moroccans regarding 2014 municipal elections. An Amsterdam court in 2009 ordered his prosecution for alleged hate speech; he was acquitted two years later.

Last month, his party won Netherlands' approval for a limited ban on "face-covering clothing" in public places, including Islamic veils and robes like the burqa and niqab but not the hijab, which covers only the hair. Wilders campaigned for the ban, which does not apply to public streets, for more than a decade.

France and Belgium approved more extensive bans. Against the advice of its federal government, one of Switzerland's 26 cantons, Ticino, introduced a ban on burqas, while other cantons rejected such a move.

Though the Dutch government called its face-covering law "neutral" on religion, another Dutch lawmaker, Marjolein Faber-Van de Klashorst, said it was "a historical day because this is the first step to de-Islamize the Netherlands" by shutting down all the mosques in the country.

Reacting to the cartoon competition, OIC's Secretary-General Yousef bin Ahmed Al-Othaimeen expressed his "deep concern over this provocative contest, which is arousing further incitement and sowing the seeds of hatred among the various followers of religions," according to the brief statement.

Al-Othaimeen, a former minister of social affairs in Saudi Arabia with a doctorate in political sociology from American University in Washington, D.C., said the world needs "peace, dialogue and tolerance" to deal with a world full of religious extremism and terrorism.

"It is time to set up internationally binding legal instruments to prevent incitement, racism and discrimination (and) religious hatred, and (to encourage) respect for all religions," he said. "Freedom of expression does not mean insulting the feelings of others; an attitude which cuts against the universal principle of respect for religions."

Strong reactions

After the OIC's condemnation, Wilders posed rhetorical questions to Dutch Foreign Minister Stef Blok, such as whether he found it normal that an international organization "interferes" in the Netherlands' freedom of speech, and did he agree that Islamic law, known as Sharia, is "at odds with freedom?"

"It’s called #FreedomOfSpeech. A concept you sharia-lovers from #OIC hate," Wilders wrote on Twitter. "But we love freedom. And nothing will stop us."

In 2012, Wilders published a book, "Marked for Death: Islam's War Against the West and Me," that begins with a foreword by conservative Canadian author Mark Steyn, who noted Wilders has constant protection from armed guards "because significant numbers of motivated people wish to kill him."

Cartoons depicting Prophet Muhammad provoked shootings and other violence in the past. In September 2005, Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten's publication of 12 cartoons depicting Prophet Muhammad led to protests and violent demonstrations across the Muslim world and touched off a debate about self-censorship, incitement of hatred and freedom of speech.

Islamist gunmen in January 2015 killed 12 people and injured 11 others at the Paris offices of French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, after it printed cartoons of Prophet Muhammad. In May 2015, Wilders spoke as guest of honor at a Prophet Muhammad cartoon show in Garland, Texas, where gunmen opened fire after he left. The shooting injured a security guard and left the two attackers dead.

Diverging views internationally

Incitement to hatred on ethnic and racial grounds is illegal in several European countries including Britain, France and Germany. Hate speech is more broadly outlawed in nations such as Belgium, Denmark, Norway and New Zealand, Sweden and South Africa.

In the United States, the Supreme Court affirmed in 2017 there is no hate speech exception under the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment right to free speech. The case involved arguments over a law that prohibits the registration of trademarks that are disparaging or contemptuous.

The 1976 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, overseen by an 18-member expert panel called the United Nations Human Rights Committee, prohibits "any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence."

The 1969 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination requires the 179 nations that have joined it to work to end racial discrimination and to outlaw hate speech. The Council of Europe has studied the issue of hate speech and, in 1994, it created the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance that examines national policies and makes recommendations.

Khalil Yousuf, a lawyer in London who is deputy communications director for the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, argued Wilders's cartoon contest should not be protected by free speech. "The cartoon competition has only one purpose: to unite far right individuals into his anti-Islam cause. It has little to do with free speech," he wrote in an op-ed article published by The Economist.

"Hatred and incitement to discrimination, packaged as free speech, have a disproportionate impact on minorities," said Yousuf. "Society should ensure that nobody feels excluded, discriminated against or the victim of hostility. Clarifying our free-speech laws for the modern age is necessary. They must be drafted to better reflect what is not free speech."

Yousuf proposed an international agreement with three components: "context and intended effects;" incitement of discrimination and hatred, with recklessness forming part of the test of intent; and a "public-order test" to reflect that harmful speech is much worse when directed to the general public.

"The aim of these cumulative provisions is not to stifle debate but to encourage personal responsibility and to ensure the continued survival of the liberal, democratic values that enable such robust free-speech protections in the first place," he said.