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The Great Divide: Free Speech Vs. Blasphemy

Afghan protesters set fire to a U.S. flag during a demonstration in Kabul on September 21.
Afghan protesters set fire to a U.S. flag during a demonstration in Kabul on September 21.
The divergent views of Western and Muslim leaders on the issue of blasphemy laws and free speech have been on display this week during the UN General Assembly.

U.S. President Barack Obama

During his address to the General Assembly on September 25, President Obama described the anti-Islam film "Innocence Of Muslims" as a "crude and disgusting" provocation.

But he said the right of people to say "awful things" must be defended in a diverse society because "efforts to restrict speech can become a tool to silence critics or oppress minorities."

"The strongest weapon against hateful speech is not repression," he added. "It is more speech -- the voices of tolerance that rally against bigotry and blasphemy, and lift up the values of understanding and mutual respect."

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon

Speaking about the "Innocence of Muslims," Ban said "a disgraceful act of great insensitivity has led to justifiable offense and unjustifiable violence."

But while endorsing free speech as a fundamental human right, Ban said it should not be used as a license to incite or commit violence.

He condemned those who exploit divisions around the world for what he called "short-term political gain," adding that "too many people are tolerant of intolerance."

"Freedoms of expression should be and must be guaranteed and protected, when they are used for common justice, common purpose," Ban said on September 19. "When some people use this freedom of expression to provoke or humiliate some others' values and beliefs, then this cannot be protected in such a way."

Egyptian President Muhammad Morsi

In his address to the UN General Assembly on September 26, Morsi argued that hate speech aimed at inciting violence should not be protected speech because it infringes upon the rights of others.

"Egypt respects freedom of expression. One that is not used to incite hatred against anyone. One that is not directed towards one specific religion or culture. A freedom of expression that tackles extremism and violence. Not the freedom of expression that deepens ignorance and disregards others," Morsi said.

"But we also stand firmly against the use of violence in expressing objection to these obscenities."

Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono

President Yudhoyono framed his argument for international blasphemy laws within the context of preventing hate speech.

"I call for an international instrument to effectively prevent incitement to hostility or violence based on religions or beliefs," Yudhoyono said.

Pakistan's President Asif Ali Zardari

Zardari, whose country has seen some of the deadliest street protests against "Innocence of Muslims," phrased his support for international blasphemy laws as a protection against hate speech.

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

"Pakistan moves the United Nations to immediately address this alarming concern and bridge the widening rift to enable the community of nations to be one again."

Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby

Secretary-General Elaraby told a UN Security Council briefing this week that there should be international laws that strictly outlaw insults to religions.

"The League of Arab States calls for the development of an international legal framework which is binding in order to confront insulting religions and ensuring that religious faith and its symbols are respected," Elaraby said.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai

In his address to the General Assembly on September 25, President Karzai supported an outright ban on "offensive acts" against religion. But he also condemned the deadly violence at rallies against the anti-Islam video.

"We strongly condemn these offensive acts, whether it is the production of a film, the publication of cartoons, or indeed, any other act of insult or provocation," Karzai said.

"Such acts can never be justified as freedom of speech or expression, equally they cannot give reason for the genuine protest to be used to incite violence with terrible losses of innocent lives."

Written by Ron Synovitz, based on reporting by UN correspondent Courtney Brooks