Late last week, I attended a Capitol Hill briefing about an obscure United Nations resolution on “defamation of religions” that some call the “soft jihad.”
Lined up in front of a hearing room in the Rayburn House Office Building were six panelists including David Harris, a Canadian who was sued for libel in 2004 by the Canadian branch of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) for remarks he made on a radio show.
Also there was Ezra Levant, the publisher of a Canadian magazine who in 2006 got in hot water - and is the target of several lawsuits - for reprinting the Danish cartoons of prophet Muhammad as part of a news story. “Foreign-born jihadis,” he says, “have teamed up with politically correct busybodies to use our own laws to undermine our freedoms, especially our freedom to criticize them.”
The chief topic of discussion was a U.N. Commission on Human Rights resolution, backed by the Organization of the Islamic Conference, that addresses “the campaign to defame religions and the ethnic and religious profiling of Muslim minorities” since Sept. 11, 2001.
Freedom of expression, the resolution says, would be “subject to limitations” to guard the “respect of the rights and reputations of others; protection of national security or of public order, public health or morals and respect for religions and beliefs.”
Those on the panel, sponsored by the Congressional Religious Freedom Task Force, said the resolution, which has yet to pass, already is having a chilling effect. Even now in Canada, “you can’t even broach the idea of sharia being problematic,” one panelist said.
One of the resolution’s backers was Pakistan, home of the dreaded “blasphemy laws” whereby majority Muslims have sent Christians and other religious minorities to jail merely on the suspicion of defaming the Koran. The lone Pakistani panelist, Asma Fatima of the Pakistani Embassy, was asked why Pakistan seems bent on exporting these laws worldwide.
“We’re protesting against hate crimes, stuff that encourages feelings of hatred, that makes people feel bad,” she said. “There are many critics of the blasphemy law in Pakistan and we are working on it.”
Angela Wu, a panelist from the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, pointed out the burning of Danish embassies in Syria, Lebanon and Iran and the torturing of religious minorities in Pakistan - especially those who convert from Islam - hurt plenty of feelings as well.
In the West, one has to prove that one has been harmed physically, mentally or materially in order to win a court judgment. With the kind of worldwide blasphemy laws suggested by this resolution, anybody anywhere could sue for merely having hurt feelings.
“When we talk of injuring religious feelings, what is that?” said a lawyer on the panel. “Is saying ‘God has no son’ on the Dome of the Rock an excuse to riot? Or dipping a crucifix in urine?”
Maybe it is, said the Pakistani representative.
“The ideal of freedom of speech is precious to you, but it’s not value-neutral,” she said. “You don’t have to hurt peoples’ sentiments and bring them to the point where they have to react in strange ways.”
Congress has introduced three bills to protect America‘s interpretation of the First Amendment and protect citizens from being sued in a foreign court if their speech or writings do not constitute defamation under U.S. law. For the moment, those bills are in committee.
Julia Duin’s column “Stairway to Heaven” appears on Sundays and Thursdays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.