‘Defamation’ of Islam Resolution Set to Pass, but Losing Ground

By Patrick Goodenough | November 25, 2008 | 2:40 AM EST

(CNSNews.com) – A United Nations committee has passed a controversial “defamation of religions” draft resolution but, amid freedom of expression concerns, the measure looks set to get less support when it comes to a final vote next month, than in previous years.

Monday’s vote in the General Assembly’s Third Committee, which deals with social, cultural, and humanitarian issues, saw more countries either abstain or oppose the resolution than vote in favor – an indication, critics say, that the push back against the Islamic bloc-driven campaign is gaining traction.

The measure, which calls on all countries to ensure their legal systems provide protection against “acts of hatred, discrimination, intimidation and coercion resulting from defamation of religions,” passed in the Third Committee by a 85-50 vote, with 42 countries abstaining.

By comparison, a similar resolution passed in the full General Assembly last December by a vote of 108-51, with 25 abstentions.

Third Committee secretary Moncef Khane said late Monday that the plenum vote generally closely follows the pattern of the final committee vote.

“Ninety-nine percent of the time the result does not change,” he explained, saying those occasions on which the final tally does differ it is usually because some delegations may have been out of the room during a draft resolution vote.

Khane said the assembly would probably vote on the resolution between Dec. 18-22.

Comparing Monday’s vote with the General Assembly vote for a religious defamation resolution last December, the most obvious difference is that 17 countries which supported the 2007 resolution are now abstaining.

They are all developing nations in Africa, Latin America and the Asia-Pacific and, notably, include three OIC members – Benin, Burkina Faso and Cameroon.

One country, Nigeria, moved from abstaining in 2007 time to supporting the resolution this time. Absences on Monday accounted for the remaining differences.

‘Wrongly associated with terrorism’

This year the 57-nation Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) has the support of two non-Muslim allies – Venezuela and Belarus – in co-sponsoring the resolution.

Although the OIC says the campaign is aimed at protecting all faiths, once again only Islam is cited by name.

But, in a sign that the sponsors are concerned about the growing opposition, they revised the draft text to remove some of the references to Islam.

A version dated Oct. 30 included four references to Muslims and four references to Islam. The revised version considered by the committee on Monday, dated Nov. 12, contains only two references to Muslims and one to Islam. Neither version cites Christianity or any other faith by name.

In the surviving references, the text “expresses deep concern … that Islam is frequently and wrongly associated with human rights violations and terrorism.”

It notes concern about intolerance, negative media portrayals and enforcement of laws after 9/11 “that specifically discriminate against and target persons with certain ethnic and religious backgrounds, particularly Muslim minorities.”

And the third reference cites “the intensification of the overall campaign of defamation of religions, and incitement to religious hatred in general, including the ethnic and religious profiling of Muslim minorities” after 9/11.

Judging from a statement released by the Third Committee, the strongest statements during Monday’s debate came from opponents of the resolution.

A representative for Uganda, speaking on behalf of the OIC, said the revisions in the text had taken into account many delegations’ concerns that the resolution should cover all religions, not just Islam.

Nonetheless, the U.S. envoy warned that some states were trying to restrict expression in the name of religious defamation, and said the U.S. government, while deploring hate speech, felt strongly that people should be free to express their opinions in challenging an ideology of hate.

France’s delegate, speaking for the European Union, said human rights were indivisible, and the right to freedom of expression was at the essence of the right to thought, conscience and belief. International human rights law should protect people in exercising their freedom of religion, not protect religions themselves, he said.

Flag of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, the 57-member bloc of Islamic nations.

‘Importing anti-blasphemy prohibitions into human rights law’

The OIC says that Muslims in Western countries have, especially since 9/11, faced stereotyping, hostility, discriminatory treatment and the denigration of “the most sacred symbols of Islam.” The organization cites cases like newspaper cartoons caricaturing Mohammed, and a Dutch lawmaker’s documentary released earlier this year, linking the Koran to terrorism.

Critics say Islamic states are trying to put Islam, and some of the more controversial practices associated with it, beyond censure.

“It is sad that once again the United Nations has endorsed an anti-blasphemy resolution, designed to curtail any criticism of Islam,” Becket Fund for Religious Liberty spokesman Tom Carter said Monday.

But he noted the shift in voting patterns, saying, “at the United Nations, this counts as a major victory.”

Carter said the trend showed that “the voices of reason are gaining ground and bodes well for the future.” He urged the General Assembly to reject the resolution when it comes to a vote next month.

In an earlier submission to the U.N., the Becket Fund – a Washington-based public interest law firm – challenged the attempt to equate acts of defamation of Islam with acts of racism against Muslims.

“Treating racial and religious discrimination as the same thing could lead to the conflation of racist hate speech and the suppression of peaceful, but controversial, discussions of truth claims about and within religions,” it argued.

The Becket Fund also noted that in Pakistan, Iran and Egypt – leaders in the OIC push to outlaw religious defamation – it is often the state that decides which religious viewpoints are acceptable.

Pakistan’s penal code calls for the death penalty for defiling Islam or its prophets; Iran has sentenced to death an academic for calling for the reformation of religion; and an Egyptian university professor was declared an apostate for teaching students to read parts of the Koran metaphorically.

UN Watch executive director Hillel Neuer called Monday’s development “just the latest shot in an intensifying campaign of U.N. resolutions that dangerously seek to import Islamic anti-blasphemy prohibitions into the discourse of international human rights law.”

In Islamic countries, he said, “Muslim moderates, bloggers, women seeking basic freedoms – all of these will be the first to suffer from the worsening climate of state repression in the name of state-supported Islamic orthodoxy.”

The move was also “aimed at the Western world, to intimidate anyone from criticizing radical Islam and those who commit violence in its name,” Neuer said.

He attributed the decline in support for the resolution – which he called “one small victory” – to successful campaigning by groups like the Becket Fund and UN Watch.

UN Watch is based in Geneva, where it closely monitors the U.N.’s Human Rights Council. The OIC holds one-third of the council’s 47 seats, and has been using its influence in the forum to promote the religious defamation issue there as well.

Last March the council passed a defamation of religion resolution by 21-10 votes, with 14 abstentions. Apart from the council’s 16 OIC members, the measure also won the backing of China, Russia, Cuba, the Philippines and South Africa.

Religious defamation is also expected to feature prominently at a U.N. global conference on racism, planned for next April in Geneva. The Human Rights Council is supervising preparations.
Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow