Islamic Nations’ Push to Outlaw Religious Defamation Faces Hurdles

By Patrick Goodenough | September 23, 2008 | 5:30 AM EDT

Amid growing opposition, a campaign by the world's Islamic nations to have international bodies outlaw the "defamation" of religion may be facing an uphill battle.

( – Amid growing opposition, a campaign by the world’s Islamic nations to have international bodies outlaw the “defamation” of religion may be facing an uphill battle.
The drive by the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), led by members including Pakistan, Iran and Egypt, has sparked concern that the right to freedom of expression is being undermined by a group of countries, including some that enforce blasphemy laws and punish “apostasy.”
The issue also looks set to feature prominently at a U.N. conference on racism, planned for next April, and already dogged by controversy because the last such conference degenerated into what critics said was an Israel-bashing farce.
But the OIC campaign has hit a hurdle, with a new report by a United Nations expert recommending that the focus shift away from the religious defamation concept, towards one of incitement to religious hatred, which is covered by existing laws.
Governments critical of the OIC push welcomed the recommendation, but also insisted that a distinction be made between inciting religious hatred and legitimate criticism of religious beliefs and practices.
Since 1999, the OIC has been promoting resolutions at the U.N. against the defamation of religion, citing an increase in cases of “Islamophobia” – a catch-all term covering everything from caricatures of Mohammed to anti-terrorism profiling at airports.
The 57-member bloc defines Islamophobia as an irrational fear or dislike of Islam, incorporating “racial hatred, intolerance, prejudice, discrimination and stereotyping.” It attributes the phenomenon to “misconception[s] and incorrect interpretation of Islam.”
A number of resolutions on religious defamation have been passed at the U.N.’s Geneva-based Human Rights Council (HRC) and its now-defunct predecessor, the Human Rights Commission, as well as at the U.N. General Assembly (UNGA) in New York City.
The annual UNGA session beginning this week will consider yet another such resolution.
Addressing a press conference at the U.N. headquarters on Monday, OIC secretary-general Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu said states would be asked to back a measure declaring activities such as the publication of “blasphemous” caricatures a crime.
He said tensions between the Muslim world and the West had come to the fore with the cartoons depicting Mohammed, published in Denmark, and from there, the situation had snowballed.
The last time the General Assembly considered an OIC-sponsored religious defamation resolution, last December, it passed by a 108-51 vote, with 25 abstentions. The vote largely pitted democracies in North America, Europe and Asia against Islamic and developing nations.
Since then, however, the HRC revisited the issue in March, and although a defamation resolution passed once again, for the first time more nations voted against it (10) or abstained (14), than the number voting in favor (21). Of the 21 that did vote for the measure, 16 are OIC members. The others were China, Russia, Cuba, the Philippines and South Africa.
The HRC currently is meeting again in Geneva, and on Friday, it discussed a new report on Islamophobia, compiled by former U.N. racism expert, Doudou Diene.
The report recommended that member states shift the discussion away from the concept of “defamation of religions” towards the legal approach of “incitement to national, racial and religious hatred, hostility or violence,” covered by existing laws.
Western members of the council embraced the recommendation, but also argued that a distinction must be made between incitement to religious hatred, and criticism.
Only religious hatred should be prohibited, as everyone has the right to criticize a religion or contest its teachings, said French envoy Jean-Baptiste Mattei, speaking on behalf of the European Union.
Mattei said the E.U. welcomed the report’s showing that existing legislation regarding hate speech was sufficient, and that no new measures were therefore needed. The E.U. could not accept that the concept of religious defamation be integrated into the human rights framework, he said.
Pakistan’s Tehmina Janjua, speaking on behalf of the OIC, voiced regret that the OIC’s resolution on defamation was meeting with resistance.
She criticized efforts to demonize Islam, saying equating Islam with terrorism was “a leap that defies logic.” The HRC must address the negative perception of Muslims, Janjua said.
Opposition in Arab-Muslim world
Opposition to the OIC campaign is coming from free speech groups, which argue that defamation laws were designed to protect individuals, not religions; from humanist and secular organizations, which worry that the freedom to criticize religion will be curtailed; and from Christian advocates, who note that domestic laws aimed at combating religious defamation in OIC countries tend to selectively target minority Christians – and to prevent Muslims from converting to other faiths.
But another challenge to the OIC campaign is coming from within the Arab-Islamic community itself.
In the run up to the HRC session, two Arab non-governmental organizations – the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies and the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights – joined with a free speech NGO, Article 19, in a submission to the council opposing the drive.
“Defamation, in its ordinary meaning, refers to unwarranted attacks on one’s reputation,” they said. “Religions, like other beliefs, cannot be said to have a reputation of their own.”
“The resolutions on combating defamation of religions, although they purport to foster ‘dialogue and understanding among civilizations,’ in fact seek to impose limitations on freedom of expression which go beyond what is permitted under international law.”
Last week the three NGOs hosted an event in Geneva, where they urged member states to oppose all future proposed resolutions at U.N. bodies on religious defamation.
U.S. gov’t sees shift
In its latest annual report on international religious freedom, the State Department criticized the OIC campaign, saying that “despite a pretence of protecting religious practice and promoting tolerance, the flawed concept attempts to limit freedom of religion and restrict the rights of all individuals to disagree with or criticize religion, in particular Islam.”
At a briefing on the report’s release on Thursday, U.S. ambassador at large for international religious freedom John Hanford III, said there appeared to be a greater appreciation among countries about the “flawed” concept.
“I’m encouraged to say that there is an increasingly large number of countries that are joining with us” in opposing the OIC push, he said, noting that the March resolution at the HRC had passed with only a plurality of votes.
“I think that there’s been a sort of a patina of tolerance that people have associated with this idea of defamation because it sounds so positive,” he said. “But I think as many countries are coming to understand the text of these resolutions more clearly, the votes are changing.”
Ihsanoglu, the OIC secretary-general, defended the defamation resolution during a speech at Columbia University last Thursday.
“It strikes a balance between the freedom of expression and the inherent responsibility attached to every liberty as stipulated in the international law, and endorsed in many Western national laws,” he said.
Ihsanoglu cited Danish Mohammed cartoons and a Dutch lawmaker’s controversial movie linking the Koran and terrorism, and decried “negative or indifferent attitudes” by some officials in the two European countries.
“We are not calling for government action to jeopardize or stifle freedom of speech, which we hail and uphold as a fundamental right,” Ihsanoglu said. “However, we believe that it is the prerogative of a government to identify and react when sheer incitement to hatred, supposedly banned by international law, creep into their society under the guise of freedom of speech.”
A petition organized by the American Center for Law and Justice, urging U.N. officials to block the OIC move, has been signed by more than 84,000 people.
Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow