Tayyip Erdogan U.S. Visit: Obama Must Confront Turkish Ally On Human Rights Abuses

On Thursday, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan will visit Washington, D.C., to meet with President Barack Obama.

Among a range of security issues, the focus will surely be the civil war raging next door in Syria. But President Obama should make sure to highlight a human rights issue with far-reaching consequences for the Middle East and the broader Muslim world: the radioactive effect of blasphemy laws.

Anti-blasphemy laws forbid the criticism or insult of religion, or any perceived contempt of religion. In many countries, alleged blasphemers can be sentenced to jail for such a "crime." The laws are a tool for suppressing freedom of speech and religious practises. In some countries they are  more than that; they are a cause of political instability and violence. Closer to home, they have posed threats to U.S. national security.

In Pakistan and other predominantly Muslim countries, anti-blasphemy laws have led to persecution of, and violence against, religious minorities and other marginalized people. Last week in Bangladesh, violent clashes between the police and protestors calling for a more extreme blasphemy law led to the deaths of dozens. And as Egypt and Tunisia undergo rocky transitions to democracy, the push to criminalize (or further criminalize) speech deemed blasphemous, threatens to inflame tensions and expose religious minorities to persecution.

A U.S. strategic ally and NATO member, Turkey is often touted as a model democracy for the Islamic world, a bridge between East and West. Prime Minister Erdogan himself embraces this leadership role and projects Turkey as a self-confident spokesman of Islamic values to the non-Islamic world.

That’s why it is unfortunate that under Prime Minister Erdogan, Turkey has been inconsistent on blasphemy laws, and this lack of clarity threatens to undermine its credibility as a  bridge between the United States and the Organisation of the Islamic Cooperation, which  take opposite views on the question of blasphemy and freedom of speech.  

Last year, the Turkish government arrested renowned composer and pianist Fazil Say for “openly denigrating” Islam in a series of tweets. A court recently sentenced him to five years probation, with the censorious condition that he doesn’t offend Muslims again. The Say case is part of Prime Minister Erdogan’s crackdown on dissent, which includes the systematic persecution of journalists. The domestic context calls into question Turkey’s willingness to play a positive role in the battle over blasphemy laws.

Recall the fury in September 2012 over the film, “The Innocence of Muslims.” The film was offensive to Muslims around the world, but it would have been lost in the obscurity of the internet had extremists not been brought it to light days before the 9/11 anniversary, in order both to stir up anti-Americanism and try to  stir religious tensions in the Middle East’s fledgling democracies. With violent protesters taking the streets, this was also a national security crisis for the United States, which endured attacks on its embassies in Egypt and Tunisia.

The United States could have used the support of its Turkish ally. Instead, as President Obama went to the United Nations to defend the importance of freedom of speech, Prime Minister Erdogan announced his support for a new global code on blasphemy.  He called for “international legal regulations against attacks on what people deem sacred, on religion.”

These remarks directly contradicted Turkey’s position in 2011, when it supported the Organization of Islamic Cooperation’s decision to drop its push for a global blasphemy code at the United Nations. That same year, Turkey even hosted a summit between Secretary Hilary Clinton and O.I.C. Secretary General Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, in hopes of ending the divisive past on this question. The meeting, which led to what has been called the  “Istanbul Process,” was meant to announce a new era of cooperation where the international community would join forces to fight religious intolerance, without restricting speech.

Public officials are right to condemn hate speech. It is important to fight back against the demonization of Islam and other faiths. But the proper way to do that is through solid argumentation, not by restricting freedom of expression. Blasphemy laws, whilst enacted in the name of protecting religious freedom, actually restrict it.

This issue isn’t going away. In countries like Bangladesh and Pakistan, blasphemy laws will continue to deepen divides and lead to violence. In the Arab Spring countries struggling to emerge from authoritarianism, hardliners will continue to try to  criminalize blasphemy. The extent to which these countries can resist these efforts will be one indicator to measure their success of building rights-respecting democracies.

In its diplomatic exchanges with Turkey, United States certainly needs to focus on  geopolitical, economic and security issues. But now President Obama should also tell his ally that if Turkey seeks to become a leader in the Middle East, it must also lead on human rights.