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Muslims challenge Obama on free speech

26 September 2012, 13:54

New York - Muslim leaders demanded international action to stop religious insults in a challenge to US President Barack Obama's defence of freedom of expression at the UN General Assembly.

Obama made a strong condemnation of "violence and intolerance" in his speech at the UN headquarters on Tuesday. He said world leaders had a duty to speak out against the deadly attacks on Americans in the past two weeks caused by an anti-Islam film made in the United States.

But Muslim kings and presidents and other heads of state said Western nations must clamp down on "Islamophobia" following the storm over the film which mocks the Prophet Muhammad.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono of Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim nation, said the film was another "ugly face" of religious defamation.

Yudhoyono quoted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as saying that "everyone must observe morality and public order" and commented: "Freedom of expression is therefore not absolute."

He called for "an international instrument to effectively prevent incitement to hostility or violence based on religions or beliefs".

'Silent observers'

King Abdullah II of Jordan, a close US ally, spoke out against the film and the violence it sparked.

Pakistan's President Asif Ali Zardari condemned what he called the "incitement of hate" against Muslims and demanded United Nations action.

"Although we can never condone violence, the international community must not become silent observers and should criminalise such acts that destroy the peace of the world and endanger world security by misusing freedom of expression," he told the assembly.

Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai condemned "the depravity of fanatics" who made the Innocence of Muslims film which set off the storm.

"The menace of Islamophobia is a worrying phenomenon that threatens peace and co-existence," he added in his address to the General Assembly.

Obama said he could not ban the video, reportedly made by Egyptian Copts, because of the US Constitution which protects the right to free speech.

New start in relations

"As president of our country, and commander-in-chief of our military, I accept that people are going to call me awful things every day, and I will always defend their right to do so," Obama told leaders at the UN summit.

"The attacks of the last two weeks are not simply an assault on America. They are also an assault on the very ideals upon which the United Nations was founded - the notion that people can resolve their differences peacefully," he added.

Obama has sought a new start in relations with the Muslim world during his first term, but the legacy of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan where US troops will remain for more than a year have been hard to shake off.

Stewart Patrick, a specialist on international institutions for the Council on Foreign Relations think-tank, said the film furore had "exposed a huge fault line regarding the balance between free speech, which obviously is healthier in the United States, and the defamation of religion, which is really a red line for many people".

But beyond the question of freedom of speech, some Muslim leaders also say the United States has still not gone far enough to balance its relations with Muslim nations.

Egypt's President Mohammed Morsi said despite anti-US demonstrations in Cairo that US support for his country and others that have seen Arab Spring revolutions could be a chance for a mutual show of respect.

'Hate and worry'

Over the past four decades, "Egyptian people see the blood of the Palestinians being shed. And they see that the US administrations were biased against the interests of the Palestinians. So a sort of hate and sort of a worry rise out of that in Egypt and in the area," Morsi said in an interview with Charlie Rose on PBS television this week.

"The demonstrations were an expression of a high level of anger and a rejection of what is happening," added Morsi. "And the US embassy represents the symbol of America as a people and government."

Obama's efforts, said the Egyptian leader, were "the opportunity to take these worries, or this hate, out of the way and to build a new relationship based on respect, communication".



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