Combating Religious Intolerance While Protecting Freedom of Expression

As identity politics has seemingly become more widespread throughout the world, there is unfortunately no shortage of people willing to use divisive tactics to polarize debate and exacerbate tensions between people. Those on the receiving end of such efforts are usually the amorphous "other," a minority or otherwise outcast group that in one way or another differs from the pervading sense of identity in a society. Looking at the history of the United States, one can point to many "others," such as Native Americans, African Americans, Irish Americans or Japanese Americans, that prevailing social norms at one point or another cast as outsiders to be marginalized and even dehumanized.

Today, it can be strongly argued that Muslim Americans are the new "other." At the very least, it is clear that there exists a network of individuals and groups who everyday are trying very hard to make this the case. One such individual is Pamela Geller, an avowed Muslim basher whose recent cartoon contest of the drawings of the Prophet Muhammad came under fire by two violent extremists. Geller's incendiary and provocative language bears striking resemblance to that used against "others" in the past, particularly with her frequent references to Muslims as "savages," a term widely applied to Native Americans in the past. Geller's contest has surprisingly won her detractors even on the right, with Fox News host Greta Van Susteren asking, "Why would anybody who's morally responsible want to intentionally incite other people?" Van Susteren added: "Yes, of course, there is a First Amendment right and of course it's very important. But the exercise of that right includes using good judgement."

While Geller's actions, however insidious and distasteful, are within her First Amendment rights, to emphasize her free speech rights while ignoring the content of her remarks is misguided. Far from being some sort of free speech hero, Geller and her ideological compatriots are more similar in their hateful diatribes to groups like the Westboro Baptist Church. This became more evident last week, when, in solidarity with Geller, a group of armed bikers held an anti-Islam protest outside of the Islamic Community Center in Phoenix. Referring to the protest as "Freedom of Speech Rally Round 2," the armed crowd wore profanity-laced shirts denouncing Islam, and had also planned a cartoon contest of Islam's prophet with the intent to take those images to the congregation at the Islamic Community Center. In a forward thinking liberal democracy, the actions of people like this and Geller should be tolerated, but not celebrated.

What should be regarded as notable and worthy of acclaim are efforts aimed at bridging the gaps between people and ending the "other" narrative. One such initiative has come from United Nations Resolution 16/18, which was passed in 2011 by the U.N. Human Rights Council through a joint effort of Western states, including the United States, and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (an international body of 57 member states). Resolution 16/18, which has garnered undue criticism from groups espousing similar views as Geller, has been lauded by human rights organizations like Human Rights First as focusing on "the protection of individuals, rather than the protection of abstract ideas and religion." Elizabeth Cassidy, deputy director for Policy and Research at the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, has said Resolution 16/18 is "committed to addressing religious bias without restricting free expression." She further states the Resolution "calls for speech to be criminalized only if it amounts to incitement to imminent violence, the same high threshold used by the U.S. First Amendment."

Cassidy has also vitally pointed out that the domestic blasphemy laws many states have are "inconsistent" with Resolution 16/18. Indeed, the Resolution stresses the need for fostering "religious freedom and pluralism by promoting the ability of members of all religious communities to manifest their religion, and to contribute openly and on an equal footing to society," while also calling for "speaking out against intolerance, including advocacy of religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence."

In December 2011, at the end of a series of meetings to discuss the implementation of Resolution 16/18 in Washington, D.C., known as the Istanbul Process, former Secretary Clinton said, "religious freedom and freedom of expression are among our highest values." The fifth Istanbul Process will convene in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia this week and it is imperative that further steps are taken for states to implement Resolution 16/18.

In these conflict-ridden times, an agreement like Resolution 16/18 represents a step in the right direction, toward unity, respect and a preservation of freedom of thought and speech. The hate-mongering of bigots like Pamela Geller, while constitutionally protected (and for good reason), should nonetheless be viewed as brazenly offensive and demeaning and be left to remain on the fringes of society.