Why Turkey can’t lead a ban on Islamophobia

Why Turkey can’t lead a ban on Islamophobia

Before Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan decided to cancel his visit to the U.N. General Assembly in New York, he was planning to talk about adopting international legislation on insults to religion. He confirmed that he would while commenting on the 14-minute trailer mocking the Prophet Muhammad, which sparked violent riots across the Muslim world. He said Turkey could lead on this issue.

This betrays the typical Turkish mentality of “banning.” We don’t like something? Then ban and get rid of it!

Well, things just don’t work like that in the “Western hemisphere” - the democratic standards of which Turkey has been aspiring to reach.

Now Erdoğan is not going to New York, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu will no doubt talk about the issue when he speaks at the U.N. However, introducing international legislation for insulting religion is basically mission impossible.

I am guessing that Turkish diplomats would remind him of the experience in 2006 when a similar crisis broke out over the Danish cartoons.

At that time - already extremely concerned about the rise in “anti-immigrant,” Islamophobic” and “racist” rhetoric in Europe - Turkish diplomats tried to raise awareness of this issue. They simply tried to convey the message that there should not be a hierarchical relationship between freedom of expression and freedom of religion, as Europeans tended always to put the former above everything else. Every time Turks tried to talk about freedom of expression being abused against Muslims, they hit the wall as Europeans told them: “freedom of expression is a core right!”

It took several months of intense negotiations to have a resolution adopted in the 2006 ministerial meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). The decision underlined the importance of states enacting a sound legal framework “ensuring equality before the law and adequate judicial protection” and called on political leaders to speak out against hate-motivated acts and incidents. This is as far as the OSCE went, but even that made the Germans and the Americans quite nervous.

There is a limit to freedom of expression also when it comes to insulting religion, according to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), which decided in favor of the Austrian government that confiscated a film about Christianity in the Otto Preminger vs. Austria case. But the ECHR leaves a wide margin of oppreciation to the governments and national courts to resolve cases of conflict between freedom of expression and the “rights of others,” in particular the right to respect for one’s religious feelings.

Most Western countries do have the necessary legal framework that regulates hate crime. But they need to strike a balance between freedom of expression and respect for religious feelings. The problem is, more often than not, the prosecutors and the judges tend to favor the principle of freedom of expression, underestimating the consequences of a discourse that borders on the incitement of hatred. Turkey should therefore spend its energies devising a strategy that encourages member countries to use the legal tools at their disposal.

Finally, as a country that has a bad international reputation for limiting freedom of expression, Turkey could indeed be the champion of the “censorious” cause. But it cannot lead any attempt to have an international legislation to ban Islamophobia, and at any rate that would be a futile attempt.