Welcome to a world where criticism of militant Islam could land you in court or worse. In Vancouver, Canada's venerable Maclean's magazine awaits a hate-speech verdict from a human-rights tribunal for publishing a chapter from syndicated columnist Mark Steyn's best-selling book "America Alone." The accusers charge the author and publisher with "Islamophobia."
Last week, Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, secretary general of the 57-member Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), warned a gathering in Kuala Lumpur that "mere condemnation or distancing from the acts of the perpetrators of Islamophobia" would not suffice. He recommended that Western countries restrict freedom of expression and demanded that the media stop publishing "hate material" like the Danish cartoons. "It is now high time for concrete actions to stem the rot before it aggravates any further," he said.
Islamic countries already scored a victory on this front back in March. They pushed through a resolution at the U.N. Human Rights Council urging a global ban on the public defamation of religion -- read Islam.
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These are examples of a growing campaign to use judicial power to silence critics of militant Islam. In the U.N. Durban Review Conference, scheduled for April 20-24, 2009 in Geneva, it appears that the OIC and its cohorts have identified the perfect platform to further their agenda.
Recall the first Durban meeting, the 2001 U.N. World Conference Against Racism, which took place only days before 9/11. That gathering deteriorated into a hate-fest against Jews, America and Israel. Disgusted by the vile rhetoric and Stürmer-like caricatures of Jews on display, the U.S. and Israeli delegations walked out.
Hopes that the Durban II conference next year will be a more enlightened event have already been dashed by the fact that some of the worst human rights abusers are setting its agenda. At the urging of the OIC, Libya secured chairmanship of the preparatory committee. Iran and Pakistan each won a seat on the committee. And Egypt, another OIC member, has been representing the 53-nation African Group during floor debates.
And so instead of Durban II rectifying the sins of the past, this latest U.N. forum will seek to undermine free societies by invoking the specter of Islamophobia. The OIC is the U.N.'s most powerful voting bloc. As the democracies at the U.N. have repeatedly learned, the OIC, with 57 members the controlling group in the 130-member bloc of developing countries, can usually push through its agenda with little difficulty.
The likely outcome of Durban II will be to urge all U.N. member states to pass legislation restricting basic freedoms of speech and action -- all in the interest of preventing "Islamophobia." The discrimination or defamation of Muslims, or of any other group for that matter, is of course reprehensible. But "Islamophobia," as defined by Libya, Iran and the other Durban II organizers, covers any criticism of Islam, Muslims or their actions.
If the leaders of these countries have it their way, writing op-eds criticizing Islamic radicalism, or speaking out against Muslim terrorists or, of course, publishing cartoons of the prophet Muhammad, are soon to be considered criminal examples of racism.
During the most recent Durban II preparatory meetings in April and May, OIC members from Iran to Indonesia all insisted that freedom of expression is what causes Islamophobia. "The most disturbing phenomenon is the intellectual and ideological validation of Islamophobia," noted the Pakistani representative to the U.N., Marghoob Saleem Butt, on behalf of the OIC. "While it is expressed in the form of defamation of religion, it takes cover behind the freedom of expression and opinion." Voicing the demands of the Muslim bloc and its many authoritarian leaders, Mr. Butt requested that the Durban process "devise normative standards that provide adequate guarantees" against the intolerance of Muslims promoted by these freedoms.
Human rights advocates worried about this threat to civil liberties have been voicing their concerns with little success. Juliette De Rivero, for example, the Human Rights Watch advocacy director in Geneva, raised the alarm in late April: "Justified concerns about the complex relationship of racial and religious intolerance and hatred should not be the pretext to undermine key freedoms, including freedom of speech," she told the conference organizers in Geneva.
The danger of the Durban process is that it seeks to shape international and national laws. If the OIC succeeds, a broad definition of "Islamophobia" will be incorporated into Durban II's final outcome document. Thereafter, expect U.N. bodies, such as the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, to call countries to task if they fail to implement these recommendations. Other organs of the international system will adopt and cite the Islamophobia definition as well, until it and its ill effects have migrated throughout the international system.
The Durban II recommendations, however, will not stop only at warping international standards on what constitutes Islamophobia -- the OIC aims to export its language into individual countries' domestic laws. The first point in a draft of the conference's final outcome document compels countries to pursue the "enactment of adequate legislation in line with [those] international standards." The same diplomatic draft paper identifies freedom of expression as a "main challenge and obstacle" to addressing contemporary forms of racism.
Only the European Union can now stop this insidious process. Canada has already announced that it will boycott the conference, and the U.S. has also indicated that it will not participate in Durban II unless satisfied that it will not be another fiasco. But only the threat of a European pullout would deal a true blow to the credibility of the proceedings and deny the partisans of "Islamophobia" the U.N. imprimatur they crave.
Next month, France ascends to the EU presidency. It will be up to Paris to lead the fight for Western freedoms and, for once, put Iran, Libya, and other authoritarian states on the defensive. Let's hope French President Nicolas Sarkozy understands what's at stake.