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Blasphemy's back

President Barack Obama on Tuesday delivered an impassioned defense of the values of freedom of expression, explaining that the appearance on the Internet of a controversial film mocking the Prophet Mohammed did not justify the violent attacks on American embassies throughout the region. It was aimed at persuading the Arab Spring's new leaders that criticism against Islam, however offensive, should not be answered with violence or prohibitions on speech. It didn't work.

Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy, in his first speech to the U.N. General Assembly, said today that the "obscenities" contained in the film are "unacceptable" and that ‘we will not allow anyone to do this by word or deed." He proposed that the U.N. Security Council and the U.N. General Assembly consider steps to prevent similar religious offenses.

"There are limits to the freedom of expression especially if such freedom blasphemes the beliefs of nations and defames their figures," added Yemen's President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi.

Over the past day and a half, speaker after speaker, from Indonesia to Qatar to Pakistan to Yemen called for the need to pass international legislation limiting the freedom of expression if it insults the religious beliefs or leaders. "Today, I would like to seize this opportunity to call on the United Nations and those of wisdom and reason and those who have the power of decisions at the international level to write internationally agreed upon laws, procedures, and controls to prevent insulting religious and faiths under any pretext and at the same time keep the right of man to know and express his opinion," said Qatar's emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani hours after Obama spoke.

Islamic countries have sought in the past to pursue the adoption of resolutions in the U.N. General Assembly and the Human Rights Council, and are likely to revive that effort in the months ahead. "A lot of these governments feel that they have to be seen doing something, even if it's a non-binding General Assembly resolution," said Bruce Jones, director of NYU's Center on International Cooperation. "It would mean precisely nothing, it would give you something to say without your domestic constituency, but it's a pretty poisonous thing."

The press for new international legislation over insults to religion marks a serious setback for American efforts to convince Islamic governments to curtail their quest to pass international blasphemy laws. It also underscored the challenges of addressing such a potentially divisive issue with a new generation of Middle East leaders whose politics are more deeply rooted in religion.

Last year, Washington marked a watershed moment in international negotiations over the issue when they convinced the Organization of the Islamic Conferences, and organization of Islamic governments, to drop a decade-long effort to adopt resolutions banning religious defamation.

"The U.N. membership finally overcame a battle that had dragged on for nearly a decade over whether insults to religion should be dealt with through bans on offensive speech," said Suzanne Nossel, president of Amnesty International, USA, who helped broker the deal when she was a senior official in the State Department. "It would be a huge step backward to devolve into opposing camps pitting concerns over freedom of expression against those of addressing religious intolerance. Offenses to religion can and must be addressed through more speech exposing such insults for what they are, not through prohibitions on speech."

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