Muslim states back limits on free speech ahead of UN debate

The UN is expected to vote on a controversial proposal for members to be able to punish religious "defamation." A 20-nation poll finds support among Muslim countries, but little elsewhere.

A poll released last Friday found a sharp divide between majority Muslim states and other nations on the limits of free speech. When it comes to criticizing religion, Muslim states favor allowing legal sanctions on such "hate speech."

The poll, conducted by World Public, comes as the UN General Assembly prepares to debate a controversial proposal that urges member nations to combat public speech deemed to denigrate religions, particularly Islam.

The proposal was crafted by the Organization of Islamic Conferences (OIC), a group of 56 majority Muslim states who argue that UN member states should "effectively combat defamation of all religions and incitement to religious hatred in general and against Islam and Muslims in particular."

The desire of many Muslims to limit free speech when it comes to questions of religion has been a hot button topic for years, particularly since a Danish newspaper in 2005 ran a series of cartoons deemed offensive to Islam and the Prophet Mohammed. The publication of the cartoons fed global Muslim protests against Denmark that saw embassies attacked and dozens of protesters killed – though it also fostered an increased inter-faith dialogue.

In many Muslim countries, laws against criticizing religion are rigorously enforced. Egyptian writer and Nobel Laureate Naguib Mahfouz's 1959 book "Children of the Alley," an allegory that depicted a poor Egyptian as Mohammed, was banned in his home country and across the Arab world.

While the ugly recent history prompted the OIC proposal, the poll shows a clear divide with the West on the issue – and also some surprising findings.

The US, one of the most religious of Western societies, sees free speech as a prevailing principle. Out of 20 nations surveyed, Americans were most in support of free speech – 89 percent of respondents said that "people should the right to publicly criticize a religion" while only 9 percent argued that "the government should have the right to fine or imprison people who criticize religion."

In the relatively less religious United Kingdom, the split was 81 percent to 13 percent; in resolutely secular France the split was 66 percent to 26 percent.

The Muslim countries polled, not surprisingly, largely went the other way. In the Palestinian territories, 51 percent of respondents favored fines and imprisonment for insulting religion. In Iraq, 57 percent did and in Egypt, 71 percent supported the idea. The only countries without a clear Muslim majority that supported punishments for criticizing religion were Nigeria (54 percent) and India (59 percent).

On the other end of the spectrum, two Muslim majority countries with strong secular traditions were against fines or imprisonment for insulting religion – with 54 percent opposed in Turkey and 67 percent opposed by Azerbaijan.

The findings make clear that while the gap in opinion is vast, positions aren't static and that local cultural and political traditions play a large role.

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