Will blasphemy be criminalized?

The U.N. will debate the limits of free speech in light of reactions to the anti-Islam clip

Published September 24, 2012 5:22PM (EDT)

The long-standing United Nations debate over free speech and its limitations will take particular precedence this week in light of the recent global reaction to an anti-Islam YouTube clip.

A number of Muslim leaders, including Pakistan Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf, will argue this week that blasphemy should (in some way) be criminalized under international law. Meanwhile, the majority of Western leaders will continue to push back against such an idea, arguing (as they have for some years) that such blasphemy laws could be used to punish, imprison or even execute dissidents under certain regimes.

According to a McClatchy Newspapers report:

At one end of the spectrum lies France, where a magazine on Wednesday published cartoons of the prophet as a naked, cowering man to underscore a point that even the most offensive expression should be protected. France plans to close its embassies and schools in 20 countries Friday as a precaution against retaliatory attacks.

At the other end of the spectrum is U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who surprised – and disappointed – many free-speech activists by suggesting limitations to freedom of speech when it’s “used to provoke or humiliate.”

“We are living through a period of unease. We are also seeing incidents of intolerance and hatred that are then exploited by others,” Ban told the 193-member assembly at the gathering’s opening this week. “Voices of moderation and calm need to make themselves heard at this time. We all need to speak up in favor of mutual respect and understanding of the values and beliefs of others.”

The report notes a number of recent, controversial instances of the implementation of countrywide blasphemy laws and tests on the limits of free speech. The conviction of three members of punk collective Pussy Riot in Russia for the charge of "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred," as well as the recent decision from a federal judge in the United States to allow aggressively anti-Palestinian, pro-Israeli ads on the New York subway, illustrate that this is by no means an issue limited to the Muslim world.

Despite the relevance of the free speech and blasphemy debate this year, it remains unlikely that blasphemy will be inscribed as an offense in international law any time soon.

By Natasha Lennard

Natasha Lennard is an assistant news editor at Salon, covering non-electoral politics, general news and rabble-rousing. Follow her on Twitter @natashalennard, email nlennard@salon.com.

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Ban Ki-moon Blasphemy Free Speech Pakistan Religion The Innocence Of Muslims United Nations