OSCE - What is a 'message crime'? (updated)

16 October 2009
OSCE - What is a 'message crime'? (updated)

Henrik Ræder Clausen, ICLA Denmark

Report from OSCE 2009 Human Dimension Implemention Meeting.

Related ICLA papers: ICLA Contribution on Tolerance and Non-discrimination Freedom of Expression: New challenges, new responses

I didn't expect that I'd start out my report from this conference by picking up a lead from COJEP, but so be it. They introduced the concept of a 'Message crime', in order to convey the real significance of the much-debated hate crimes. This term cuts through a ton of confusion and is worth adopting. For details, read on.

There are many kinds of crime, and many kinds of motivation for crime. Most crimes are committed for personal reasons, like undue material gain, jealousy, sexual reasons, to exact revenge to eliminate critics, opponents and enemies. Some crimes, however, have a target much more important than their immediate victim(s). These are message crimes. There are, of course, intermediate forms. A ruthless political leader or a mafia boss will eliminate his opponents for both reasons, both to get rid of a troublesome person and to deter others from causing him similar problems in the future. What is interesting here is the message aspect of crime, not the personal.

Message crimes are reported frequently in the media, with varying degrees of clarity. The so-called 'honour killings' (which really should be called 'family executions') are message crimes. The families of these unfortunate women make a conscious decision to eliminate one of their kin in order to “protect the honour of the family”, which is really an euphemism for “keeping our women under control”.

The motivations for these deeply tragic murders state this openly: “She dated an infidel”, “We didn't want her to see that man”, “She had become too 'Western'”. Those are the messages these murders are intended to convey: The women have to, under the threat of capital punishment, obey the choices made by their families.

Honour killings are routinely thought of as being part of Islamic tradition. However, other examples do exist, like this Kurdish girl of the Yezidi religion who was stoned to death in 2007, here from KurdNet.

These message crimes have as their main purpose to protect the honour of the killing families, preserving their prestige in society. The killing of one of their women is a means to that end, killings that an entire family can decide, plan and execute in mutual agreement and understanding. One particular well exposed case of this took place in 2005 Slagelse, Denmark, where the 18-year old Ghazala Khan was shot dead for the offence of marrying an Afghan man, covered in detail by Brussels Journal.

In this particular case, the entire plot was uncovered through police investigation, and all members collaborating in the crime were convicted, for a total of 120 years of prison time for the family. Significantly, the head of family, who ordered the murder, was given a heavier sentence than the brother who eventually pulled the trigger. This is the kind of legal action we need in order to protect and extend the freedom of women in immigrant circles.

Back to the OSCE conference. Frequent references were made to the stabbing in Dresden of an Egypt woman, a case which is said to be typical of growing Islamophobia in the West, as reported in The Guardian.

However, not much in this dramatic murder distinguishes it from an ordinary criminal incident. The killer, Alex W., is of Russian, not German, origin. His message to her at the moment of killing was “You don't deserve to live”. In spite of the problem not being obvious – the acts of a mentally troubled Russian acting alone does not say anything major about racist sentiment in Germany – the case was extensively publicized in Egypt and pressure applied on the German government to condemn the killing as a hate crime, eventually extracting a conditional condemnation, here in Der Spiegel.

One might wonder why a non-obvious case like this is used as a poster example. First and foremost, it indicates that no clear-cut obvious cases could be found, or they would have been used instead. Further, there is internal Egyptian politics to the case. The Muslim Brotherhood has been pressing the case in the parliament, and the government of Egypt was under pressure to act on the case, showing itself as the protector of Egyptians and Muslims abroad.

The conference in general, however, concentrated on using the better known yet vaguely defined concept of 'hate crime', with a wide variety of issues being debated under this heading. Criticism of Islam took some blame for radicalising Muslim youth. That would have to do with the frequent mention in the press of being a distinct group, unintegrated and even potentially a fifth column undermining Western democracy and freedom. Unsurprisingly, the speakers mentioning these subjects showed no interest in addressing the criticism against Islamic immigrants, preferring to blame the criticism itself for causing problems.

A recurring theme was the problem of registering hate crimes. One of the introductory speakers noted that practically no hate crimes are on record in the southern states of the USA, claiming that this, in view of the history of the US South, was so completely not credible that the registration process for hate crimes must be flawed. The obvious remedy for this is re-education of the police force, in order to significantly increase the number of registered hate crimes. Educating the police and other law enforcement institutions to report a greater number of hate crimes was touched upon on quite a few occasions.

Many speakers mentioned the problems of anti-Semitism and 'Christianophobia', which are also on the rise. Calls for boycott of Jewish businesses in the wake of the Gaza conflict conjures up sinister memories. And here the 'message crime' comes up again: Desecration of Jewish/Christian symbols constitute message crimes.

The physical damage may be limited, no persons are hurt, but the message from those desecrating the religious symbols is clear: “We do not respect your religion”. The 2004 pogroms in Kosovo, where a great number of churches, monasteries and even graveyards were severely damaged, constitute an extreme example of this. However, there is a tendency to downplay the threats and actions against Christians.

The representative from Canada said that they would participate actively in identifying hate crimes, and urged that hate speech on the Internet be monitored and punished.

A representative from the Turkish organisation Embargoed! launched a particular vicious attack on Cyprus, accusing it of all kinds of unjust treatment, apartheid and racism against the Turkish-occupied north. Embargoed!, however, did not mention that the separation of the island is self-imposed by the Turkish-oriented minority and the ongoing military occupation, nor did they – for obvious reasons – mention the extensive damage to the Cypriot cultural heritage in the north. Due to time constraints, Cyprus could be permitted only a 60-second rebuttal.

The message from Embargoed! seems clear: If the government of Cyprus does not give in to Turkish demands, they will be subject to the stigmatizing charge of 'racism', leading to the international community siding with the Turkish side against Cyprus.

The representative of the Holy See noted with regret that some regimes enforce a single religion on their citizens.

An US-based group, Redeemed Lives (www.redeemedlives.org) explained how anti-discrimination laws are causing them severe trouble in one of their focus areas, that of self-emancipation from undesired same-sex attraction. In particular, the rights awarded to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual groups (LBGT in short) had been used to push their books – titles like “Coming out of Homosexuality” off the market, as they were deemed 'offensive' to these groups.

At this point, I got the opportunity to take the floor. Time was limited to 2 minutes, and I used them to say the following:

Distinguished Delegates,

The International Civil Liberties Alliance notes with concern that hate crime and anti-discrimination laws are worded much too broadly and often enforced with excessive zeal, becoming in effect tools for repression rather than vehicles for freedom. Further, exaggerating the problems and exploiting singular cases to create draconian legislation would be counterproductive to the OSCE goals and intentions.

In order to properly further the OSCE goals, we need to ensure that legislation is well-defined. Ideally, the problems addressed here should be handled through ordinary criminal laws, as hate crimes usually constitute libel and implied threats against certain groups. The classical target is the Jewish community, the recent 'organ harvesting' article in the Swedish daily Aftonbladet being a case in point.

Additionally, blasphemy laws and the like, that still are on the books in Denmark and elsewhere, only serve to cover up the problems, not to solve them. These laws need to be repealed, also in order that political extremism disguised as religion can be freely criticized.

Thank you.Redeemed Lives had a further elaboration on their problems.

Then came the Swiss-Turkish Union of Lawyers (I'm not certain of the exact name), who lamented the fact that it had been permitted to hold referendums concerning the construction of minarets along with mosques. This could severely annoy other Islamic countries. They recommended that the Swiss government take measures to prevent any similar referendums to take place in the future.

Armenia noted that 'hate crime' has been a priority for the OSCE since 2003, but noted that there is no firm legal definition of 'hate'. And that in spite of this being a priority, anti-Armenian propaganda in Azerbaijan continues unabated, not least on the Internet.

Austria, who had been criticized for raising obstacles against construction of mosques in Corinthia and Voralburg, noted that any religion is permitted to erect houses of worship. However, construction regulations exist and must be adhered to. These rules are democratic and apply equally well to Islamic organisations.

Cyprus got the last word, noting that the so-called isolation of the northern part of the island is due to the Turkish occupation there. And that the closing of ports, Famagusta in particular, is due to the inability of the government of Cyprus to exercise its authority in that part of the country.

Speakers unable to present their views in full due to time constraints were encouraged to submit a more extensive statement to the OSCE Document Distribution desk, who would post them online.

_________________ End of Working Session 10___________

Side event 1: Preventing and Responding to anti-Muslim Hate Crimes

COJEP hosted a side event entitled “Preventing and Responding to anti-Muslim Hate Crimes”. The event was chaired by Bashy Quraishy (who, as he phrased it, “lives in Denmark”) and featured: Mr. Veysel Filiz, Vice President of COJEP, Mr. Tankut Taskin Soykan, Adviser on Combating Intolerance an Discrimination Against Muslims (OSCE), Mrs. Liz Fekete (Institute of Race Relations, UK), Mr. Paul Legendre (Human Rights First) and Mr. Ömür Orhun (Adviser and Special Envoy of the OIC).

The session focused on getting more reports on hate crimes filed, that NGO's would be better able to combat them. COJEP introduced the interesting interpretation that hate crimes are really 'message crimes', sending out messages to all immigrants and/or all Muslims. It was the desire of the panel that the States should take measures to prevent these from happening, making it clear to society at large that this kind of messages cannot be tolerated.

The low number of reported hate crimes might, according to the panel, be due to Muslims not having faith in the police in the European states. More information needs to be collected regarding hate crimes against Muslims.

When the floor was opened for debate, I inquired why only hate crimes against Muslims would be recorded? Following the news gives a vivid impression that hate crimes committed by Muslims against non-Muslims are numerous, and that the 'message crime' aspect of these crimes are frequently surprisingly clear.

A case in point was the demonstration January 10th in Copenhagen, Denmark, where a counter-demonstration to a pro-Israel rally indulged in praise of Hitler, calls for killing Jews and (of particular note) a reference to Muhammad conquering and plundering the Jewish settlement of Khaybar in 628 A.D.

The chant used in that demonstration was (in Arabic): ”Khaybar Khaybar ya Yahud, jaysh Muhammad saufa ya'ud”, which translates into English: "Khaybar, Khaybar o Jews, the army of Muhammad will return.” The message here, as had also been made explicit, is a threat to Jews, merely due to their ethnic origin. The racist and 'message crime' nature of this demonstration should be obvious.

Should one dive into the life story of Muhammad, various 'message crimes' can be identified, including the assassination of poets Uqba bin Abu Muayt, Asma bint Marwan, Abu Afak and others. These old tales still seem to have clear messages to Salman Rushdie, Kurt Westergaard and other artistic critics of Islam.

History aside, the panel had some trouble giving a clear response to my question, deliberating the idea in various ways. After the session, Bashy Quraishy gave a clear answer: It would not be acceptable, for doing so would constitute racism. No further comments seem neccesary.

Side event 2: Challenging Intolerance against Muslims

This event started as late at 18:00, with Kareem Shora of American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) being the most interesting speaker. He related how the ADC works diligently to stop profiling of Muslims and Arabs on grounds of anti-terrorism laws, how their Law Enforcement Outreach Program (LEOP) is in place to teach the US law enforcement authorities to avoid stereotypes and respect religious sensitivities, and how these authorities should act and perform their work in order to gain the trust of the Arab/Muslim communities and avoid backlashes, as well as how to crack down efficiently on 'hate crimes'.

Kareem Shora, who joined ADC in 2000, has recently been appointed by US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Janet Napolitano as a member of the Homeland Security Advisory Council (HSAC); the official advisory body for the DHS Secretary on homeland security matters.

The Obama administration received high praise for showing great sensitivity to Islamic and Muslim points of view, expressed not least in Obama's Cairo Speech, which has been somewhat controversial from other's points of view, but by Kareem and the ADC is seen as a significant step forwards towards the attitudes they desire from the US government.

This is a stark contrast to the attitude taken by George W. Bush after September 11th 2001, and Kareem expressed his particular pleasure that the US government is now taking great efforts to avoid associating Islam with terrorism, a linkage that has been seen as offensive to Muslims for years.

Bashy Quraishy, who had chaired the previous side event with COJEP and OIC, had a question on this matter. While he appreciated that it had become a lot easier to influence the US government, he found the situation in Europe utterly frustrating. While the US has just a single government to influence, Europe has dozens of countries, each with its own independent government, and each with various 'extremist' right-wing parties. In particular these political parties, who show no signs of giving in to Islamic views, are causing much trouble for his work to increase Islamic influence in Europe, making his efforts seem futile and being the cause of much frustration.

Kareem responded that Europe always follows the US. Just as Europe followed the US in going against the Islamic world after 9/11, he fully expected Europe to follow the lead of Obama, and move away from the current confrontational stance towards avoiding controversy, seeking instead to find a workable compromise with Islamic interests.

One may wonder what exactly Quraishy, Kareem etc. are aiming to achieve. Could it have something to do with The Project? I don't expect we'd get a clear answer to a question like that.

Closing remarks The OSCE conference is a large and sometimes confusing place, with many people to meet and some strict rules to follow in order to ensure a smooth conference. Documents by the hundreds are submitted for online distribution, making it easy for a contribution to get lost in the flow. But all things considered, things run smoothly.

Also in the city of Warsaw outside, one thing is clear: Poland has come a long way since Communism. This is to a great extent due to the work of OSCE (and the precursor CSCE), which contributed significantly to delegitimizing the totalitarian communist regimes in East Europe.

A similar delegitimization of totalitarian Islam can take place, if we have the courage and make the effort to uphold our civil liberties, and in turn use them to criticize religious fanatics with too great a lust for power.