Controversial Religious Anti-Defamation Bill Approved by UN
The U.N. General Assembly Thursday approved a "Defamation of Religion" resolution, largely supported by Islamic countries,
condemning critical or offensive expressions directed at any religious faith. What's not to like?
According to critics of the resolution, quite a lot.
The resolution has been pushed at the United Nations by major Islamic nations such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan over
the past nine years. It was approved by a vote of 86 in favor, 53 against and 42 abstentions.
Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that "everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience
and religion." Article 19 expands on this freedom by guaranteeing "the right to freedom of opinion and expression."
Some see the new resolution as being in violation of Article 19.
"The 'defamation of religions' resolution is a direct violation of the United Nations' mandate to protect religious freedom,
as peaceful religious speech -- a manifestation of belief -- will be silenced as a result of it," Angela C. Wu, international
law director of the Washington-based Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, said in a statement.
The resolution raises a thorny issue: Should freedom or expression be limited by a demand to show respect for what is
considered sacred by others?
It is also a prime example of the way different cultures around the world interpret great principles that they theoretically
agree upon in very different ways.
This gives the fierce debate over the resolution a place in the whole "Clash of Civilizations" narrative, to use the concept
presented by Samuel P. Huntington in his book of the same name. It highlights profound differences in approaches to religious
belief and religious freedom between democracies on the one hand (largely built on separation of church and state), and
Islamic states on the other.
Support for the resolution in the United Nations was actually down compared with last year, when it won an overwhelming 108
votes in favor, 51 against and only 25 nations abstaining. This year, "No" votes and Abstentions outweighed the "Yes" votes.
However, the Organization of the Islamic Conference is pushing hard to implement the resolution into formal international law
and would like to see it institutionalized in formal international agreements.
OIC Secretary-General Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu said his group was committed to respecting freedom of expression.
There was a "rising tide of incitement to religious hatred and discrimination and intolerance targeting Muslims," he told a
meeting called by the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) at the United Nations in Geneva. The 57-nation OIC, based
in Saudi Arabia, ostensibly represents 1.5 billion Muslims. "Attempts to equate Islam with terrorism should be stopped.
Stereotyping and demonization of Muslims should be combated." Ihsanoglu added.
Ihsanoglu said the motives of the Islamic grouping were misunderstood. The aim of the OIC, he declared, "is not to protect
religion against critics based on objective and rational interrogation." He added that the OIC "is firmly committed to
respect for freedom of expression, which is a fundamental human right."
U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said Friday's meeting that when criticism of religion became incitement
to hatred "urgent but proportionate" action should be taken.
But, she added, "speech critical of religions does not necessarily constitute such incitement" and that it should always be
assessed "stressing the importance of protecting the rights of both religious minorities and non-believers alike."
The passing of this resolution could lead to major international diplomatic conflicts. The United States has consistently
opposed the resolution as actually having a negative effect on religious liberty, a position supported by most U.S. groups
concerned with religious liberty.
Elements of the resolution seem to conflict with the United Nations' own Universal Declaration of Human Rights. They
certainly contradict the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
International religious liberty activists are particularly concerned that Islam is the only religion specifically named in
the resolution. Even if the measure is admirable and necessary, these people argue, other great world religions including
Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism and Judaism deserve equal protection under it.
Critics also charge that, far from protecting religious liberty, the resolution will endanger it by smothering protests and
reporting about religious persecution around the world on the grounds that any dominant religion doing the persecuting is
allegedly being unfairly criticized.
"We are deeply disturbed that (the) resolution has given cover to oppressive governments to persecute dissenters," the Becket
Fund's Wu said. "Ahmadi Muslims in Pakistan, Christians in Orissa, India, and Baha'is in Iran have one more reason to fear
for their lives as the U.N. lends legitimacy to the criminalization of their peaceful speech."
"States have no place determining what is and is not blasphemy," she said.
According to this argument, the resolution, however well intentioned, is another example of bad law being enacted for good
reasons and producing the opposite results to the ones that were intended. If that proves to be the case, it would be another
example of British conservative philosopher Sir Karl Popper's famous Law of Unintended Consequences, which can loosely be
paraphrased, "Be careful what you wish for; it will turn out to be the opposite of what you intended."
Martin Sieff, "U.N. religious hate vote alarms liberty groups" United Press International December 19, 2008
Robert Evans, "Don't link Islam to terror, Islamic chief urges" Reuters December 19, 2008