After President Barack Obama gave the United Nation's General Assembly a primer this week on upholding the right of free speech, he asked them to examine what's really behind the violent and deadly reaction to a YouTube video that mocked Islam's founding Prophet Muhammad.
"More broadly, the events of the last two weeks speak to the need for all of us to address honestly the tensions between the West and an Arab world moving to democracy," he said.
Political scientists, human rights advocates and diplomats agree a primary cause of those tensions is the abuse of blasphemy laws in many Muslim-majority countries. The statutes, which are theoretically designed to protect sacred religious symbols and beliefs, are vague and often used to silence political dissent, solidify power and discriminate against minorities.
These experts say the protests in Muslim nations over the past two weeks that have claimed several lives, including that of the U.S. ambassador to Libya, follow a pattern of extremists crying blasphemy to rile up a mob as a show of political strength and influence.
"We need to have our eyes opened to this," says Nina Shea, a human rights lawyer and co-author of "Silenced: How Apostasy and Blasphemy Codes are Choking Freedom Worldwide." "On the surface it’s not what it seems. It's not simply about a blasphemous film. It’s not simply about religion. It’s about politics and power struggles within the Islamic world and between the Islamic world and the United States."
Shea is not alone in her view that without a strong defense of free speech and religion by the U.S. against renewed calls at the U.N. for an international blasphemy treaty, a "theocratic iron curtain will fall" on the Middle East and the opportunity will be lost for those freedoms to take root in Libya, Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere in the region.
"We won't see a genuine democracy or genuine liberal engagement because what we are seeing now is the mob of the street (mobilized by Muslim extremists) becoming more dominant and an Arab spring turned into an Arab winter," said Hakan Yavuz, a political science professor at the University of Utah's Middle East Center.
Experts point to where the recent protests have taken place — in countries where governments have been newly elected or where existing regimes are facing pressure for change — and where they have not taken place — such as Saudi Arabia, where severe blasphemy laws are enforced but there is no cry for democratic reform — as evidence that recent accusations of blasphemy are being used not to defend sacred religious symbols, but to rally a base of support, crack down on dissent and distract citizens from dire economic conditions.
A similar tactic was used by Iran's religious rulers in 1989, when the Ayatollah Khomeini declared a death bounty for author Salman Rushdie, whose book "Satanic Verses" infuriated devout Muslims. "The real and deeply felt offence caused by the book to many ordinary Muslims was actually seized upon by Khomeini to help shore up his own shaky political regime" after losing a war to neighboring Iraq, wrote the late Richard Webster in his "Brief History of Blasphemy: Liberalism, Censorship and the 'Satanic Verses.’ ”
In Egypt, where the new president, Mohammad Morsi, was a former member of the Muslim Brotherhood, a political party that had been unrecognized by previously secular regimes since the early 1950s, religious extremists see an opportunity to have a strong voice in government.
But the vast majority of Egyptians are more liberal in their practice of Islam and many embrace Western culture, explained Asiya Daud, a professor at American University who recently returned from a two-year National Security fellowship in Egypt.
"You go into the clubs at night and they love American music, clothes and pop culture," Daud said.
But many of those young adults are also unemployed and frustrated that the regime change has not brought about the reforms demanded during their protests that called for change. They become easy targets for extremists who are organized and skilled at exploiting those frustrations by tapping into a crowd's emotional defense of their religious beliefs.
"They join the cause of (the minority) religious extremists out of misplaced aggression because of the 30 percent unemployment," Daud said.
The offending video, "Innocence of Muslims," which has been blamed for inciting the demonstrations over the past two weeks, had been posted on YouTube for more than two months before a conservative broadcaster aired it on Egyptian television the week of the 9/11 anniversary.
Shea noted that one of the leaders of the demonstration in Cairo was the brother of al-Qaida leader Ayman al Zawahiri, a "potent sign" that al-Qaida lives, Shea said.
"Islamists also want to ensure that the next elections are fought on their terms," she said. "They want to shut down debate and criticism of the way they rule because they rule in the name of Islam."
Most religious traditions incorporate some type of blasphemy and apostasy codes within the faith. But when those codes, which ban any disrespectful or sacrilegious depiction of a religion or belief, are incorporated into public law, they can become tools by those in power to silence critics and oppress minorities.
For centuries, Christianity advocated severe punishment, including death, for blasphemy against the church, and those penalties were often enforced by governments in Christian-majority countries. And while most religions have abandoned the harsh penalties, even countries that advocate free expression and religious freedom have been slower to rid their legal codes of blasphemy statutes.
In the United States, a handful of states still have blasphemy laws on their books, although they have gone unused for decades since the Supreme Court found them unconstitutional in 1952. That case involved a film that was deemed sacrilegious under New York state's blasphemy law.
Muslims and the countries where their faith is dominant will have to go through the same evolution if they want democracy, said Thomas Farr, a former American diplomat and now assistant professor of religion and world affairs at Georgetown University.
"Blasphemy laws are deeply seeded into the cultures of most of the (Muslim) majorities of these countries," he said. "There is a broad view in the Muslim world that if one insults Islam they must be punished by prosecution by the state or mob violence."
A recent State Department report said that in 2011 "governments (in Muslim-majority nations) increasingly used blasphemy, apostasy, and defamation of religion laws to restrict religious liberty, constrain the rights of religious minorities, and limit freedom of expression."
The report noted Pakistan in particular where people have been murdered for speaking out against the state's blasphemy statutes. The recent case in August of a 14-year-old Christian girl prompted an international outcry.
The girl was granted bail and her case was sent to juvenile court Monday after a police investigation found she had been framed by an Imam, who is now accused of tearing pages out of the Quran himself. But the girl remains in hiding and fears for her life because of the accusation made against her.
During her tenure on the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, Shea said she found that governments usually back down when their abuse of blasphemy laws are exposed, such as in the girl's case in Pakistan or in Iran, where a Christian pastor who faced a death sentence for apostatizing from Islam was released earlier this month. But those rulers still defend the laws as necessary to govern their people and promote social harmony.
A recent report by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found that the laws actually have the opposite effect.
"Globally, countries that have laws against blasphemy, apostasy or defamation of religion were more likely to have high government restrictions or social hostilities than countries that do not have such laws," the report concluded.
Pew researchers found that social hostilities involving religion were high or very high in 19 of the 44 countries that enforce blasphemy laws and in four of the 15 countries that have such laws but do not enforce them. By contrast, among countries that do not have such laws, 58 percent had low restrictions or hostilities against religion.
The 56-nation Organization of Islamic Cooperation launched a campaign in 1999 for the U.N. to pass a resolution for an international blasphemy law banning defamation of religion. Then late last year, the U.N. General Assembly finally adopted a compromise resolution that backed away from outlawing blasphemy and instead calls for "combating intolerance, negative stereotyping, and stigmatization of, and discrimination, incitement to violence, and violence against persons based on religion or belief.”
While the United States supported the resolution, critics call it a dangerous move that tacitly defends blasphemy laws.
But Micheal Kozak, a former ambassador to Belarus and currently senior adviser in the State Department's Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, said those who criticize the resolution usually haven't read it.
"The resolution is the antithesis of the defamation resolution and does not support blasphemy laws. That's why we joined it," he said, explaining that it adopts the U.S. legal standards of free expression while condemning actions that offend or oppress religious belief.
He said the resolution also gives the United States a standard to which to hold countries accountable to what they agreed to.
"It says if people say disgusting things the right response is for political, religious and civic leaders to respond by condemning those things," Kozak said. "Where we are really strong is that saying bad things don't warrant violence or criminal action."
He said the administration's response to the YouTube video and the demonstrations it helped spawn has been consistent with that position.
In response to renewed calls last week by the OIC for an international blasphemy law, Obama in his speech before the General Assembly on Tuesday condemned the anti-Muslim video that helped spark the recent attacks, calling it "cruel and disgusting." But he strongly defended the U.S. Constitution's protection of the freedom of expression, "even views that we profoundly disagree with."
According to the Associated Press, the theme of Obama's speech was that leaders of the Muslim world should also stand up for free speech and oppose those who vent their anger with violence.
"There are no words that excuse the killing of innocents. There is no video that justifies an attack on an embassy. There is no slander that provides an excuse for people to burn a restaurant in Lebanon or destroy a school in Tunis or cause death and destruction in Pakistan," Obama said.
Shea praised Obama's defense of free speech, calling it "an important opening salvo."
"This conversation about the critical importance of individual freedoms is coming late and is just beginning," she said. "It must be sustained both diplomatically at the U.N. where it will be up to us to take a lead on it, and in the application of foreign policy."
On Monday, U.S Ambassador Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe told the U.N.'s Human Rights Council that freedom of religion is inseparable from free expression, according to Reuters.
Donahoe, trying to blunt efforts by the OIC for a blasphemy ban, said that when the two freedoms are allowed to flourish, "we see religious harmony, economic prosperity, societal innovation and progress, and citizens who feel their dignity is respected."
"When these freedoms are restricted, we see violence, poverty, stagnation and feelings of frustration and even humiliation," she said.
Shea said laws against defamation should only apply to individuals and never institutions or ideas.
"Religions are not just symbols, they are complex beliefs systems," she said. "In protecting all these complex belief systems from critique, negative commentary or ridicule there won’t be anything left."
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