Islamic Nations’ ‘Religious Defamation’ Drive Is Losing Steam

By Patrick Goodenough | November 24, 2010 | 5:56 AM EST

Tens of thousands of people have signed a petition urging top U.N.officials to oppose a drive by Islamic governments to outlaw the defamation of Islam. Critics say the move is aimed at shutting down legitimate debate.

( – An Islamic-led campaign against “religious defamation” suffered a fresh setback Tuesday when a U.N. General Assembly committee passed an annual draft resolution on the subject by the smallest margin ever. Just 12 votes separated countries voting for and against the measure.

The vote by the General Assembly's Third Committee, which deals with social, cultural, and humanitarian issues, passed 76-64, with 42 abstentions.

The full General Assembly will vote on the resolution next month, but in previous years the committee vote usually has been a good indication of the final one. (In 2009 and 2008 the vote difference shrank between the time it moved through the Third Committee and the final General Assembly vote; in 2007 it went the other way.)

The Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), the bloc of 56 Muslim countries at the U.N., has seen its annual resolution steadily lose ground every year since 2007, with the difference between “yes” and “no” votes dropping from 57 that year to 33 in 2008, and to 19 last year.

The committee did not immediately release Tuesday’s voting record, but in recent years it has been mostly non-Muslim developing countries that have shifted to opposing the resolution or abstaining.

The decline in support has come as a growing number of Christian and secular advocacy groups as well as human rights, free speech and legal organizations have stepped up lobbying of governments in a bid to defeat the measure.

Critics say the OIC is using claims of “Islamophobia” as a pretext to set limits on freedom of expression regarding Islamic teachings and behavior.

They also see in the campaign an attempt to impose restrictions in non-Muslim countries similar to blasphemy laws in force in some Islamic states. Under those laws religious minorities, especially Christians and members of non-mainstream Muslim sects, face harassment, prosecution and punishment that can include the death penalty.

“Each year, more and more countries are recognizing that laws protecting religions from ‘defamation’ or criticism increase intolerance and human rights violations, instead of reducing these problems,” Leonard Leo, chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, said after Tuesday’s vote.

“Religious intolerance is best fought through efforts to encourage respect for every individual’s human rights, not through national or international anti-blasphemy laws,” he said. The USCIRF is a body set up under the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act to give independent advice to the executive branch and Congress.

OIC Secretary-General Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu meets with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon at a retreat in New York on January 12, 2010. (UN Photo by Eskinder Debebe)

In a bid to halt the erosion of support for the resolution, the OIC amended this year’s draft to cut back references to “defamation.”

While last year’s text used the term 12 times, the 2010 version replaced it for the word “vilification” in all but three instances. The formal title remains “Combating Defamation of Religions.”

In previous resolutions Islam was the only religion cited by name. This year the text includes for the first time the phrase “cases motivated by Islamophobia, Judeophobia and Christianophobia.”

The draft was introduced for the OIC by Morocco, whose envoy told the committee that while the importance of freedom of opinion was acknowledged, it was also important to have a limitation of that right.

He said the OIC through its amendments had demonstrated flexibility and compromise and hoped this would lead to consensus.

But despite the amendments, the resolution’s call for member states to outlaw speech regarded as insulting to religions or religious adherents remained unacceptable to many governments.

“The resolution continues to request that governments prohibit or punish offensive speech, including creating laws to do so,” U.S. delegate John Sammis told the committee, in explaining the U.S. decision to vote against the measure.

“It also continues to refer to the problematic ‘defamation’ concept, excludes many religions or belief systems, and equates defamation to a human rights violation or incitement,” he said.

The representative of Belgium, speaking for the European Union, said that international human rights law protects individuals, not religions or belief systems.

Last week OIC Secretary-General Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu said the organization had tried to work closely with U.N. member states, including the U.S. and European countries, “to achieve mutual understanding in order to counter the rising trend of incitement to hatred not only towards Muslims, but also followers of all religions.”

He said the revised resolution presented to the General Assembly this year covered all religions and did not ask states to take any measures beyond their existing international obligations.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow