UNITED NATIONS - The head of the Arab League called Wednesday for the international community to criminalize blasphemy, warning that insults to religion pose a serious threat to global peace and security. The comments put him squarely at odds with the United States and many of its western allies, which are resolutely opposed to restrictions on freedom of expression.
Also at Wednesday's U.N. Security Council session, the U.S. and Russia offered starkly differing assessments of the situation in Syria, underscoring the global body's inability to unite around a strategy to end the Arab country's civil war. Whereas Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton decried Syrian President Bashar Assad's "murdering of his own people," Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov accused the U.S. and other countries of encouraging terrorism.
But perhaps the most controversial argument came from the Arab League's Nabil Elaraby, who told the U.N. Security Council that if the west has criminalized acts that result in bodily harm, it must also criminalize acts that insult or cause offense to religions. He condemned the violence that erupted throughout the Muslim world in response to an anti-Islam film produced in the United States. But, he said that unless blasphemy laws are enacted and enforced, similar incidents could happen again.
"While we fully reject such actions that are not justifiable in any way, we would like to ring the warning bell," Elaraby said. "We are warning that offending religions, faiths and symbols is indeed a matter that threatens in international peace and security now."
"If the international community has criminalized bodily harm, it must just as well criminalize psychological and spiritual harm," he said. "The League of Arab States calls for the development of an international legal framework which is binding ... in order to confront insulting religions and ensuring that religious faith and its symbols are respected."
Elaraby maintained that the 21-member Arab League valued the freedom of speech but stressed that "we don't see any relation between freedom of expression which aims at enriching culture and building civilization of the one hand and activities that merely offend and insult the beliefs, culture and civilization of others."
Individual members of the Arab League, including Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, have issued similar calls.
Elaraby spoke at a special session of the Security Council called to discuss developments in the Middle East, including the crisis in Syria and the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
Speaking later at the same meeting, Clinton did not address Elaraby's comments. On Tuesday, though, President Barack Obama gave a powerful defense of free speech rights as he spoke to the U.N. General Assembly. He strongly defended the U.S. Constitution's guarantee of the freedom of expression, "even views that we profoundly disagree with."
Clinton said the protests exposed "deep rifts" within the Arab Spring's new democracies that extremists were able to exploit. She said the U.S. would work closely with the region's new democracies, specifically on helping them restore security. Threats she cited included extremists trying to "hijack" Tunisia's democratic progress and al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula's dangerous presence in Yemen.
"The riots underscored the challenges of building security forces focused on protecting people, not regimes," Clinton told foreign ministers from the 14 other U.N. Security Council members. "Training, funding, and equipment will only go so far. It takes the political will to make hard choices and tough changes that will build strong institutions and lasting security."
On Syria, Clinton joined other ministers in complaining that the U.N. Security Council has been unable to unify behind a plan to end the violence in Syria and promote a political transition. Clinton said the council was "paralyzed." French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said it was "shocking" that the council had been unable to act. Advocates say almost 30,000 people have died since March 2011, but China and Russia have blocked Security Council action on Syria.
Without mentioning any country by name, Lavrov blamed the U.S. and its European and Arab allies for the continued violence.
"A significant share of responsibility for the continuing bloodshed rests upon the states that instigate the opponents of Bashar Assad to reject the cease-fire and dialogue and at the same time to demand unconditional capitulation of the regime," he said. "Such an approach is unrealistic and in fact it encourages terrorist methods that the armed opposition is using more and more often."
Earlier Wednesday, Clinton said western and northern African nations need to tighten security on their borders to combat the increased movement of extremists, weapons and drugs. She called the Sahel region is a "powder keg" of hunger, displacement and insecurity, and said the world can't ignore the situation.