Round three of the “Istanbul Process” opens today, December 3, and runs through Wednesday, at Canada House, in London, hosted by the U.K. and Canada. The Istanbul Process is Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s major transnational law initiative, undertaken in partnership with the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). It was established last year to “implement” measures against speech and expression that negatively “stereotype[s]” Islam and Muslims, with a particular emphasis on enacting them in the West.
This initiative was started as an inexplicable, gratuitous gift to the Muslim world following the March 2011 adoption of a non-binding U.N. Human Rights Council resolution (16/18) on the same theme. While the Obama administration claims that it doesn’t intend for the process to adopt regulations beyond the American free-speech standard, our partner, the OIC, is only too eager to do just that.
For over a decade within the U.N., the OIC has relentlessly pushed for a universal law to punish blasphemy, or “defamation,” of Islam. This 56-member-state organization, an essentially religious body, is in fact chartered to “combat defamation of Islam.” It issues fatwas and other directives to punish public expression of apostasy from Islam. Its current action plan calls for “deterrent punishments” in all states for “Islamophobia,” a term that encompasses a broad range of constitutionally protected speech, judging from the OIC website’s black list of Americans and other perpetrators of “Islamophobia.” The OIC’s stated understanding of the Istanbul Process is that it will “help in enacting domestic laws for the countries involved in the issue, as well as formulating international laws preventing inciting hatred resulting from the continued defamation of religions.”
Corner readers will remember that the Istanbul Process’s first conference was co-chaired by Clinton and the OIC secretary general in July 2011, in Istanbul, with the foreign ministers of the Muslim countries in attendance. The second was held over three days of closed-door meetings last December, at the offices of the U.S. Department of State in Washington. That meeting drew enough controversy within free-speech circles to raise questions about whether the process would continue. But thanks to a leak last week by OIC head Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, we now know the event will go ahead, even if its agenda is still being treated like it’s “classified.”
Judging from the 2011 session I was partially able to observe as a commissioner on the official U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, the point of the Istanbul Process is for the governments of the developed West give an accounting to the governments of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Pakistan, Qatar, and other key Muslim states on measures taken to stop American and other Western citizens from disparaging Islam. This puts our diplomats.in a tight spot: Unlike virtually every other country represented in the conference hall, America does not protect any religion or any other body of ideas from criticism and ridicule. However, when we’re in the dock this time around, the U.S., represented by Dr. Suzan Johnson Cook, the administration’s severely marginalized ambassador-at-large for religious freedom, will have some measure of “progress” to report.
For example, the U.S.’s top intelligence official and its top commander in Afghanistan were again deployed to suppress blasphemy against Islam in Florida and, this time around, they succeeded. Last year, the efforts of our top authorities to stop Florida micro-church pastor Terry Jones from desecrating a Koran ended in failure. But this year, their resort to the “good offices” of Tampa socialite Jill Kelley proved an effective strategy. Her persuasive emails resulted in Florida talk-show host Bubba the Love Sponge’s standing down from deep frying a Koran, something he had threatened to do on-air. The OIC’s Ihsanoglu would likely rule Bubba was about to “abuse” freedom of expression by not being able (incontrovertibly, I should note) to pass a “responsible use” test.
That leads to our next plea: The administration has also adopted the OIC’s own standard of condemning the “abuse of free expression.” Or at least that is what it appeared to do on the website of the pivotal U.S. embassy to Egypt on September 11 this year. Our embassy declared on its homepage: “We firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others.”
But perhaps, the best evidence of America’s “implementation” in response to the Istanbul Process is the Justice Department’s dispatching the FBI a couple months ago to investigate Mark Basseley Youssef (a.k.a. Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, or Sam Bacile), the California Coptic filmmaker of “Innocence of Muslims,” the YouTube trailer that blasphemed the Muslim prophet. As Ambassador Cook can point out, this investigation has resulted in a creative criminal conviction of Youssef, and his being sentenced by a federal court to a year in prison. All the better for the U.S.’s reputation as implementers is that it will be lost on the conferees that Youssef has been imprisoned on a probation offense, à la Al Capone — though, unlike Capone, his underlying offense, without which he would not have been investigated, was making a crude, insulting video, which is hardly equivalent in American law to gangland massacres or racketeering. It, in fact, is not a crime at all. Thus, most important, the OIC’s take-away will be that in defense of Islam the U.S. government can and will regulate speech.
Nevertheless, none of this is likely to impress the Istanbul Process gathering. On its opening day last December, Saudi Arabia — headquarters to and godfather of the OIC — beheaded a Sudanese woman for “sorcery.” Last week, Egypt sentenced to death Youssef, Terry Jones, and six other Americans implicated in the blasphemous YouTube trailer. For the Istanbul Process that’s “best practices” for “implementation.” Thus, again, America will be judged to have fallen short, indignation will rise, and the Istanbul Process will need to ramp up its pressure.
— Nina Shea is director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom and co-author with Paul Marshall of Silenced: How Apostasy and Blasphemy Codes Are Choking Freedom Worldwide.