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Over the past week, leaders of several Muslim countries, joined by the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, have come before the United Nations to call for restrictions on freedom of expression. They’ve pointed to The Innocence of Muslims, a video that insulted the Prophet Mohammed and sparked riots across the world. They’ve lectured the West on Muslim sensibilities and the limits of tolerance for blasphemy.
The riots and the lectures paint a picture of Islam as a culture allergic to unfettered free speech. That picture is misleading. There are Muslim liberals. They don’t show up on your TV screen, because they don’t riot. Today, they’re a small minority of the Muslim population. But with the help of global communications technology and the Arab spring, they’re beginning to make a case for greater tolerance. Here’s a sample of what they’ve said about the latest affronts to Islam: the video, the “savage” subway ads in New York, and the Mohammed cartoons in France. Their words and thoughts are worth your time.
“The best way to counter hatred is to defy it through convincing arguments, good actions and free debate. Much can be done to fight hatred without restricting speech, and governments should condemn hatred and set the example. Any legislation that restricts free speech including religious symbols can be used to quell social and political dissent. … Countless incidents show that when governments or religious movements seek to punish offenses, in the name of combating religious bigotry, violence then ensues and real violations of human rights are perpetrated against targeted individuals. …
Governments and individuals frequently abuse national blasphemy laws to stifle dissent and debate, harass rivals, legitimize mob violence, and settle petty disputes. The loose and unclear language of these laws empowers majorities against dissenters and the state against individuals. They provide a context in which governments can restrict freedom of expression, thought, and religion, and this can result in devastating consequences for those holding religious views that differ from the majority religion, as well as for adherents to minority faiths. … Rather than criminalizing speech, U.N. member states should step up their commitments to fighting hate crimes, countering hateful discourse, opposing discrimination and promoting interfaith and intercultural dialogue.”