UNITED NATIONS — The annual U.N. General Assembly meeting, which is intended to celebrate the world’s common values, this year is exposing instead the gulf between Western and Islamic perspectives on freedom of expression, posing an unexpected challenge for President Barack Obama, who spoke here today.
Prompted by the anti-Muslim video produced in California that has stirred deadly riots around the world, delegations from major Muslim nations have arrived at the U.N. prepared to demand international curbs on speech or media that they believe defame their religion or the Prophet Muhammad.
Western leaders say they won’t give ground on free speech, but the clash is souring the mood at a gathering that diplomats had hoped would yield new collaboration on Syria, the dispute over Iran’s nuclear development and the challenges newly elected governments face a year after the “Arab Spring” toppled authoritarian rulers in the Middle East and North Africa.
The demand for limits on anti-Islamic expression is coming from leading Islamic groups such as the Organization for Islamic Cooperation, and leaders as diverse as Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Recep Erdogan, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Erdogan, who Obama views as a key ally, has declared that all 57 Islamic nations “should speak forcefully with one voice,” and has called for “international legal regulations against attacks on what people deem sacred.”
These leaders consider anti-Islamic material a kind of “hate speech” that should be banned around the world. They are expected to demand those regulations when debate begins Tuesday in the General Assembly.
“This has exposed a huge fault line in political philosophies,” said Stewart Patrick, of the nonpartisan Council on Foreign Relations. “It may be irreconcilable.”
The dispute puts Obama in a difficult position in the closing weeks of the presidential race. While the president will stand firmly for First Amendment values, he needs to be careful in condemning the anti-Muslim video not to sound an apologetic note that would draw political fire from his adversaries.
The White House was hoping Obama could use his U.N. address to show how his administration’s support for democratic movements in the Arab Spring, and greater engagement with the Muslim world overall, have improved America’s international standing after a decade of war in Muslim nations.
Instead he faces a jarring reminder of the anti-American riots in some 20 nations, and the storming of the U.S. Consulate in eastern Libya that killed U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans on Sept. 11. The White House last week described the heavily armed assault in Benghazi as a terrorist attack.
The controversy is expected to breathe new life into efforts by the Organization for Islamic Cooperation, which pushed unsuccessfully for a dozen years for the U.N. Human Rights Council to pass a resolution making anti-blasphemy laws a matter of global human rights.
A battle at the U.N. for such a standard, even if it doesn’t pass, is a setback for U.S. policy.
Experts say it helps legitimize efforts in parts of the Islamic world to enforce tough anti-blasphemy laws that may be used to target moderate politicians and permit harsh treatment of minority groups and religions. It also could make it harder for missionaries seeking converts, and Western nongovernmental groups pushing for democratic governance.
“This could justify tough crackdowns on religious minorities,” said Patrick. “This does touch on American values. … U.S. officials have been very worried in the past that this effort would catch on.”
In Pakistan, it is a crime to insult the Prophet Muhammad, the Quran or Islam, a law that critics say can be used to settle scores against adversaries or persecute minorities.
In Egypt, Coptic Christians have said they worry that the anti-Islam video, called “The Innocence of Muslims,” could unleash a wave of violence against them. A pair of men reportedly involved with the video are Egyptian immigrants tied to conservative Christian causes.
The demand for limits on supposed hate speech reflects new political realities since the “Arab Spring.”
In countries like Egypt and Tunisia, previously outlawed Islamist parties are competing openly for power. Their leaders are seeking to outflank more moderate political rivals, who feel increasing pressure to back down on free speech.
Morsi was slow to respond when protests broke outat the U.S. Embassy. The Muslim Brotherhood wants to maintain its legitimacy on the streets.