Friday, March 27, 2009

Will the United Nations soon be issuing fatwas? Today the U.N. Human Rights Council is expected to vote on a resolution introduced by Pakistan on behalf of the Organization of the Islamic Conference to combat defamation of religion, in particular Islam. This resolution is part of an effort begun in 1999 to establish an international framework that would in practice legitimize religious oppression. It is an assault on the rights of the individual and freedom of conscience.

The language of the resolution seems benign enough, condemning stereotyping, inflammatory statements and so forth. But very troubling is the elasticity of the term “defamation.” It is used to silence social critics and other liberal voices in countries where the law is captive of the official religion. “Anti-blasphemy” statutes in Shariah-based legal systems squelch debate over the rights of women, the right to free speech and expression, privacy, criminal justice and a variety of other off-limits issues. This U.N. resolution would give further international sanction to every authoritarian regime that hides its oppression behind the veil of faith.

The OIC also plans to introduce binding resolutions that will require states to punish religious defamers. In practice this could target almost anyone with an opinion. Recent experience has shown that, particularly in the Muslim world, almost any comment can be tarred as defamatory and incite fatal violence. Publication of caricatures of Mohammed in the Danish Jyllands-Poste in 2005 sparked riots. Salman Rushdie was threatened with death for discussing irregularities in the history of the Koran in his novel . There were even protests in 1963 when U.S. Ambassador to India John Kenneth Galbraith named his family cat “Ahmed,” one of the forms of the name “Mohammed.”

It is fully appropriate for the public, the media, and even in some cases public officials to speak out if they feel speech or actions defame faith. But the OIC wants to establish an international framework for punitive government action against even legitimate criticism of religion. This is a dangerous evolution of international law wholly at odds with the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which enshrined the individual’s “right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion” including “freedom to change his religion or belief” and to publicly “manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.” However according to the OIC’s 1990 Cairo Declaration, any such rights are ultimately “subject to the Islamic Shariah.”

Islam is the only religion mentioned in the OIC resolution, and can profitably be examined under the proposal’s criteria. The resolution decries “negative stereotyping and defamation of religions.” But the Koran and other Muslim holy works are rife with defamatory comments about Jews, Christians, pagans and other “apes and swine.” The resolution deplores “all acts of psychological and physical violence and assaults.”

But missionaries and converts are subjected to death sentences in many Shariah-based legal systems. The resolution condemns the type of “defamation of religion and incitement to religious hatred.” But this would be familiar to anyone in the region when the talk turns to Israel, India or the West. By all means, let us apply these standards to some of the member states of the OIC and make an honest accounting of the true sources of intolerance.

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