Blog Post

Rethinking the “Red Line” by Asma Uddin, Legal Counsel

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Ryan Colby 202-349-7219

By Asma Uddin, Legal Counsel

From June 8-11, I had the pleasure of convening a working group at the 2013 US-Islamic World Forum in Doha, Qatar.

The Forum is part of the Brookings Institute’s Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World. The Project seeks to engage and inform policymakers, practitioners, and the broader public on developments in Muslim countries and communities and on the nature of their relationship with the United States.

Brookings is an extremely well-respected and prestigious think tank with an international presence, and it was an incredible opportunity to be chosen as a convener for the Forum.

My working group was titled “Rethinking the ‘Red Line’: The Intersection of Free Speech, Religious Freedom, and Social Change.” I proposed the topic because free speech, particularly freedom to speak about, criticize or even reject religion, continues to be a contentious issue among Muslims, and between Muslims and non-Muslim compatriots, in the United States and in Muslim-majority countries. While I have had opportunities in the past to engage actors from the Muslim-majority world on this issue, the Forum gave me the unique opportunity to do it at a much higher level, with greater potential of actual on-the-ground change.

Several high-level members of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) participated in my group, as well as activists and politicians from the US, Europe, and numerous Muslim-majority countries. Together, we explored the reasons why free speech remains a controversial topic with changing contours and disputed boundaries, and how these disputes might be addressed and resolved. Using the OIC’s Defamation of Religions Resolution as a case study, the working group looked at different definitions of free speech, alternative standards governing limits on free speech, and how the gaps among competing standards might be bridged.

In particular, I spent some time exploring the public order justification for speech restrictions. It is an exception that exists in international free speech and religious freedom law, in US law in the form of the incitement to imminent violence standard, and, in much broader form, in the jurisprudence of Muslim-majority countries. The way this exception is defined and interpreted varies considerably across these bodies of law, and I feel strongly that reconciling these interpretations is key to reaching consensus on adequate free speech protections.

Deeply committed to bringing about change on this issue, I am working with Brookings and other actors to continue building on the Doha discussion.