At U.N., Egypt and Yemen Urge Curbs on Free Speech
Left, Chang W. Lee/The New York Times; right, John Minchillo/Associated Press
Chang W. Lee/The New York Times
Mr. Morsi condemned the violence resulting from an anti-Muslim film.
By NEIL MacFARQUHAR September 26, 2012
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UNITED NATIONS — The new presidents of Egypt and Yemen — both of whom were swept to power by uprisings demanding democratic rights — issued clear rebuttals on Wednesday to President Obama’s ardent defense of Western values at the United Nations, arguing that cultural limits on rights like freedom of speech had to be respected.
President Mohamed Morsi of Egypt, who billed his 40-minute speech to world leaders as the first by a democratically elected leader of his country, condemned the violence stemming from a short online video that insulted the Prophet Muhammad and led to numerous deaths, including that of the American ambassador to Libya and three of his staff members.
But Mr. Morsi rejected Mr. Obama’s broad defense of free speech a day earlier at the United Nations, saying “Egypt respects freedom of expression, freedom of expression that is not used to incite hatred against anyone.”
“We expect from others, as they expect from us, that they respect our cultural specifics and religious references, and not seek to impose concepts or cultures that are unacceptable to us,” said Mr. Morsi, a former leader of the Muslim Brotherhood. “Insults against the prophet of Islam, Muhammad, are not acceptable. We will not allow anyone to do this by word or by deed.”
On Tuesday, Mr. Obama laid out a lengthy defense of the right of free speech as a universal value. But Mr. Morsi and other leaders signaled that such a right could only go so far, even if the Arab world has four new leaders because of popular revolutions demanding basic human rights.
President Abed Rabbu Mansour Hadi of Yemen opened his speech on Wednesday by demanding curbs on freedom of speech that insults religion.
“These behaviors find people who defend them under the justification of the freedom of expression,” he said. “These people overlook the fact that there should be limits for the freedom of expression, especially if such freedom blasphemes the beliefs of nations and defames their figures.”
But Mr. Hadi also noted that expressions of opinion should be peaceful, denouncing “violence and incitement of hatred, which is contradictory to the values of the true Islamic religion.”
Other leaders have spoken out on the issue at the United Nations. President Asif A. Zardari of Pakistan, a country that experienced some of the most violent riots as a result of the film, went furthest in arguing against freedom of expression on religious matters, using his address on Tuesday to demand that insults to religion be criminalized.
“Before I take up my speech, I want to express the strongest condemnation for acts of incitement of hate against the faith of billions of Muslims of the world and our beloved prophet, Muhammad,” Mr. Zardari said, going on to enumerate the suffering caused in Pakistan by extremism, including the 2007 assassination of his wife, Benazir Bhutto.
“The international community must not become silent observers and should criminalize such acts that destroy the peace of the world and endanger world security by misusing freedom of expression,” he said. The United Nations should take up the issue immediately, he added.
Past United Nations attempts to address the issue, summarized in a general Human Rights Council agreement, have been deemed insufficient.
Nabil Elaraby, the secretary general of the 21-member Arab League, added his voice to the issue, saying that spiritual harm should be treated as a crime, even as he condemned the recent riots. “If the international community has criminalized bodily harm, it must just as well criminalize psychological and spiritual harm,” Mr. Elaraby told a special session about Syria of the Security Council, saying it was a serious enough problem to warrant Council attention.
The Arab League will pursue an international legal framework to confront insults to religion and to ensure respect for all faiths and their symbols, he said.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran, in a speech on Monday at a high-level meeting on legal standards, indirectly attacked the United States and others for defending freedom of speech when it came to defaming religion, but there was no direct reference to this in his main address on Wednesday. He stuck largely to spiritual and moral themes, rather than presenting his usual annual broadside against Israel, the lack of peace in the Middle East and international efforts to dismantle Iran’s nuclear program.
Mr. Ahmadinejad did say that Iran was being threatened with military action by “uncivilized Zionists” and criticized the enormous amount of money spent on American elections, without naming the United States. He aligned himself indirectly with Occupy Wall Street and similar protest movements, saying the voices of the “99 percent” were not heard in policy making decisions.
But otherwise the 35-minute appearance was a lecture about the need for a fairer world order. As an example, he said later, Iran would soon form a working group to tackle the Syria problem. He concluded by forecasting at length about the peace that will prevail with the appearance of the religious savior awaited by many faiths.
“The current abysmal situation of the world and the bitter incidents of history are due mainly to the wrong management of the world, and the self-proclaimed centers of power who have entrusted themselves to the devil,” Mr. Ahmadinejad said.
But he said nothing to prompt what had become an annual walkout by European nations over Holocaust denials and other subjects.
“Ahmadinejad gave a long, rambling speech,” said one European Union diplomat, speaking anonymously according to his ministry’s guidelines. “Previously we’ve walked out because of his anti-Semitism, threats against Israel and 9/11 conspiracies. This year his only crime was incoherence.”
Other critics noted that Mr. Ahmadinejad made laudatory remarks about the young people who are seeking change around the world, even though Iran crushed its own youth-fueled pro-democracy movement that contested his re-election in 2009.