By Stephanie Nebehay
GENEVA (Reuters) - The world's largest Islamic body called on Tuesday for expressions of "Islamophobia" to be curbed by law, just as some countries restrict anti-Semitic speech or Holocaust denial.
Pakistan, speaking on behalf of the 56 countries that form the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), condemned a video made in the United States that defamed Islam and the Prophet Mohammad, igniting Muslim protests around the world this month.
"Incidents like this clearly demonstrate the urgent need on the part of states to introduce adequate protection against acts of hate crimes, hate speech, discrimination, intimidation and coercion resulting from defamation and negative stereotyping of religions, and incitement to religious hatred, as well as denigration of venerated personalities," Pakistan's ambassador Zamir Akram said in a speech to the U.N. Human Rights Council.
The Obama administration has condemned the film entitled "Innocence of Muslims" as "disgusting". But Western countries remain determined to resist restrictions on freedom of speech and have already voiced disquiet about the repressive effect of blasphemy laws in Muslim countries such as Pakistan.
Akram said the crudely made video, as well as the burning of the Koran and the publication of defamatory cartoons, amount to "deliberate attempts to discriminate, defame, denigrate and vilify Muslims and their beliefs".
Such acts constitute "flagrant incitement to violence" and are not protected by freedom of expression, Akram said. Rather, he said, Islamophobia must be acknowledged as a contemporary form of racism and be dealt with as such.
"Not to do so would be a clear example of double standards. Islamophobia has to be treated in law and practice equal to the treatment given to anti-Semitism, especially in legislations."
It was urgent to "establish an internationally acceptable threshold between freedom of expression and incitement to violence and hatred," Akram added.
DIFFERENCES OVER FREE EXPRESSION
On Monday, the United States told the Council that it considered freedom of religion inseparable from free expression, countering calls from many Islamic countries for a treaty outlawing blasphemy.
Religious dignity is best protected where there is free speech, U.S. Ambassador Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe said. "When these freedoms are restricted, we see violence, poverty, stagnation and feelings of frustration and even humiliation."
The OIC signaled last week that it would revive long-standing attempts to make insults against religions an international criminal offence.
A resolution submitted by African countries and backed by the OIC calls on states to introduce into domestic criminal law a provision ensuring that those responsible for crimes with racist or xenophobic motivation are prosecuted.
The text, which deplores "the targeting of religious symbols and venerated persons" is one of the most contentious of the 32 resolutions to be voted on by the 47-member forum this week.
Cyprus, speaking on behalf of the European Union in Tuesday's debate, said an existing international treaty for combating all forms of racism and intolerance was sufficient, and the main goal should be to implement it effectively.
"...In several parts of the world, criminal penalties for hate speech may be used as a means to silence dissidence and suppress freedom of thought, conscience and expression," Cyprus Ambassador Leonidas Pantelides said.
(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay)