UNITED NATIONS (AP) — The head of a leading Islamic organization Saturday called for a global ban on offending the character of the Prophet Muhammad, saying that it should be equated with hate speech.
Such a ban would demonstrate how an interconnected world respected different cultural sensitivities, said Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, secretary general of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation in an interview with The Associated Press.
"If the Western world fails to understand the sensitivity of the Muslim world, then we are in trouble," Ihsanoglu said. Such provocations pose "a threat to international peace and security and the sanctity of life."
Ihsanoglu's remarks follow protests that erupted in Muslim countries after a low-budget film, "Innocence of Muslims," produced by a U.S. citizen denigrated the Prophet Muhammad by portraying Islam's holiest figure as a fraud, womanizer and child molester.
Some two dozen demonstrators were killed in protests that attacked symbols of U.S. and the West, including diplomatic compounds. The U.S. Ambassador to Libya and three of his colleagues were killed in an attack on their compound in the eastern city of Benghazi during the same time.
Many of the protests were led or provoked by hardline puritan Muslims, who form small but growing minorities throughout the Islamic world.
Ihsanoglu, whose organization represents 57 Muslim-majority countries, said they respect the right of freedom of expression, but believed a line had to be drawn at incitement.
"We are not saying stop free speech. We are staying stop hate speech," Ihsanoglu said.
While European leaders and U.S. President Barack Obama have sharply condemned the film, they also have defended the importance of free speech even if it allows extremists to broadcast offensive views.
Still, it appeared difficult to see how such a provision proposed by Ihsanoglu could ever work — even if it was agreed to — because of the easy access to social media websites on the Internet that can be used to spread offensive material. Excerpts from "Innocence of Muslims" were posted on YouTube.
Ihsanoglu said his call for a ban did not imply he was rewarding violent protesters, whom he sharply condemned.
Instead, he said such a ban would show a global sensitivity to the veneration which 1.5 billion Muslims have for the Prophet Muhammad. He said he was not calling for a ban on criticizing Islam, but specifically, on denigrating its founding prophet.
"You have to see that there is a provocation. You should understand the psychology of people who revere their prophet and don't want people to insult him," he said.
Ihsanoglu's call also echoed the views of other moderate Muslim scholars and leaders, who have urged the U.N. and international bodies to define global standards on religious expression and to help prevent incitement — particularly Islamaphobia.