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Restricting speech

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Monday criticized an attempt by Islamic countries to prohibit defamation of religions, saying such policies would restrict free speech.

“Some claim that the best way to protect the freedom of religion is to implement so-called anti-defamation policies. … I strongly disagree,” Ms. Clinton said. “The protection of speech about religion is particularly important since persons of different faiths will inevitably hold divergent views on religious questions.”

The Organization of the Islamic Conference, a group of 56 Islamic nations, has been pushing hard for the so-called U.N. Human Rights Council to adopt resolutions that broadly bar the defamation of religion. The effort has raised concerns that such resolutions could be used to justify crackdowns on free speech in Muslim countries, The Washington Post reports.

Ms. Clinton made her comments while unveiling the State Department’s annual report on international religious freedom.

Tom Farr, who was the first director of the State Department’s office of international religious freedom and now teaches at Georgetown University, called the report imbalanced. “It spends too much time identifying the problem and not enough on what the U.S. is doing and should be doing to address the problem,” he said.

Mr. Farr also noted that the report was presented without an ambassador at large in charge of international religious freedom, because Barack Obama has not nominated a candidate.

“I think it’s a bad sign,” he said. “There’s no excuse for not having anyone in that spot by now.”

Threats of reprisals, and actual reprisals up to and including murder, have already had a chilling effect on the publishing in the West of objective analysis — as well as commentary — on the social and political results of modern Islam. See the absurd hubbub over the publication of some quite bland cartoon depictions of Muhammad in the Danish press; the murder by a Muslim zealot of Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh for making films critical of islam; the death sentences issued in absentia against dissident Muslim writers living in the West (including Salman Rushdie); and Rosemary Sookhdeo’s account, in “Secrets Behind the Burqa,” of Oxford University’s refusal to accept her doctoral dissertation unless she “changed my position on Islam.”

This is no longer a merely theoretical issue. Freedom of expression is under serious attack, not just in the Muslim world, but here in the West. Ms. Clinton’s comments are refreshing and welcome.

What is needed now is for the Obama administration to show them full backing, translating these words into firm actions in opposition to ongoing suppression or attempts to suppress free speech — even if some find such speech offensive.

An administration that has found plenty of time to appoint literally dozens of domestic “czars” in charge of such crucial undertakings as elementary-school gay education could make a good start by filling the vacant position of ambassador-at-large in charge of international religious freedom.

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