Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Wednesday ended the "Istanbul Process," a three-day, closed-door international conference hosted by the State Department on measures to combat religious "intolerance, negative stereotyping and stigmatization."
The conference was intended to "implement" last March's UN Human Rights Council Resolution 16/18, on the same subject. Notwithstanding Clinton's final speech defending freedoms of religion and speech, the gathering was folly.
Resolution 16/18 was adopted in the place of one that endorsed the dangerous idea that "defamation of religion" should be punished criminally worldwide. That call for a universal blasphemy law had been pushed relentlessly for 12 years by the Saudi-based Organization of Islamic Cooperation, an essentially religious body chartered to "combat defamation of Islam." It issues fatwas and other directives to punish public expression of apostasy from Islam and "Islamophobia."
Leading OIC states behind this campaign — Saudi Arabia, Iran, Egypt and Pakistan — imprison and/or sentence to death "blasphemers."
Resolution 16/18 deplores religious intolerance but doesn't limit speech — the result of a deft State Department maneuver. The administration should have let matters rest there.
Instead, while co-chairing an OIC "High Level Meeting" addressing Islamophobia last July in Istanbul, Clinton invited the OIC to Washington to discuss how to "implement" resolution 16/18.
While the Washington conference ended inconclusively, it should not have been held because:
* It offered a transnational venue for the OIC to reintroduce its anti-defamation push, just as the issue had been laid to rest at the United Nations. The administration erred in viewing resolution 16/18 as a meeting of minds between the OIC and America on freedoms of religion and speech.
In Istanbul, Clinton asserted that the United States does not want to see speech restrictions — but her conference announcement immediately reignited OIC demands for the West to punish anti-Islamic speech.
As the OIC reported it: "The upcoming [Washington] meetings . . . [will] help in enacting domestic laws for the countries involved in the issue, as well as formulating international laws preventing inciting hatred resulting from the continued defamation of religions."
* It unfairly held up the American experience for special scrutiny and critique.
A legal official's opening keynote address gave a one-sided historical depiction of American bigotry against religious minorities, including Muslims, without explaining our relatively exemplary achievement of upholding individual freedoms of religion and speech in an overwhelmingly tolerant and pluralistic society. He told the participants, some representing the world's most repressive states, that America can learn to protect religious tolerance from them.
* By standing "united" (as the OIC head put it in a Turkish Daily op-ed) with the OIC on these issues, America appears to validate the OIC agenda, thus demoralizing the legions of women's rights and human-rights advocates, bloggers, journalists, minorities, converts, reformers and others in OIC states who look to the United States for support against oppression.
* It raises expectations that America can and will regulate speech on behalf of Islam, as has happened in Western Europe, Canada and Australia.
The European Union mandated religious-hate-speech codes after global riots and other similar violence erupted in 2006 over a Danish newspaper's publication of caricatures of Mohammad. America is facing pressure to conform to this new global "best practice"; this will only intensify it.
* Clinton on Wednesday naively importuned Islamist diplomats: "We have to get past the idea that we can suppress religious minorities, that we can restrict speech, that we are smart enough that we can substitute our judgment for God's and determine who is or is not blaspheming."
Saudi Arabia's Wahhabi establishment isn't likely to find such "infidel'" arguments persuasive.
US diplomats should stop the "Istanbul Process" and begin to energetically and confidently promote the virtues of our First Amendment freedoms. They should be thoroughly briefed about the OIC's intractable position on blasphemy laws and the extent of atrocities associated with them. They must end signaling that there is common ground on these issues between us and the OIC.
Nina Shea is a Senior Fellow and Director of Hudson Institute's Center for Religious Freedom. She is also a Commissioner on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF).