How American ideals won in Qur’an burning controversy

Photo: Pakistani Muslims burn a US flag during a protest in Lahore on September 19, 2010, against earlier threats by US pastor Terry Jones to burn copies of the Muslim holy book, the Koran.

by Tad Stahnke, Director of Policy and Programs, Human Rights First Crossposted at Washington Post’s On Faith series 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.

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Published on October 4, 2010

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