Free Speech vs. ‘Blasphemy’ Features in Geneva Panel Discussion

By Patrick Goodenough | February 12, 2015 | 7:19 PM EST

U.S. ambassador to the Human Rights Council, Keith Harper, far right, participates in a discussion on resolution 16/18, in Geneva on Thursday, February 12, 2015. Also on the panel is Pakistan’s ambassador, Zamir Akram. (Photo: U.S. Mission/Eric Bridiers)

(CNSNews.com) – At a time when some Islamic figures are renewing calls for a ban on religious “defamation” push in the wake of the Mohammed cartoon furor, diplomats in Geneva took part Thursday in a panel discussion on balancing religious intolerance and free speech.

Members of the panel included the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Human Rights Council, Keith Harper, and his counterpart from Pakistan, Zamir Akram, whose government oversees arguably the world’s most controversial blasphemy law regime.

At the center of the discussion was a 2011 U.N. measure known as “resolution 16/18,” co-sponsored at the time by the U.S. and Egypt, and characterized by the Obama administration as a triumph of diplomacy.

It did so because the resolution broke a logjam which for more than a decade saw Western democracies clash with Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) member states over the latter’s annual promotion of a text calling for the “defamation of religion” to be outlawed.

Resolution 16/18 avoided the use of polarizing “defamation” concept and affirmed “the right to freedom of opinion and expression.”

On the other hand, it also expressed concern about “derogatory stereotyping, negative profiling and stigmatization of persons based on their religion or belief” and urged governments to adopt “measures to criminalize incitement to imminent violence based on religion or belief.”

Left vague was how an action, words or pictures would be determined to have incited violence. Critics saw the initiative as a new tactic in the OIC’s anti-free speech campaign.

After resolution 16/18 was adopted, Western governments highlighted its avowal of free expression while Islamic nations emphasized the religious stereotyping and incitement aspects.

Early problems were evident at  the very first meeting held to advance the resolution – in Istanbul in July 2011, and attended by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton – when Pakistan’s Akram said on the sidelines that the OIC would not compromise on three things – anything said or done against the Qur’an, anything said or done against Mohammed, and discrimination against the Muslim community.

Almost two years on, the State Department was still applauding the initiative.

“Another remarkable advance was resolution 16/ 18, through which the [HRC] – after years of chronic division – came together to combat religious intolerance,” assistant secretary Esther Brimmer told the council in early 2013.

“We applaud the leadership that Turkey, Pakistan, and other countries have shown on this resolution, and appreciate as well the support of the OIC secretary-general.”

Despite the optimism, a Pew Research Center report last year found that social hostility involving religion had risen to a six-year high.

Last month’s terror attack at the offices of the satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo, loathed by many Muslims for its irreverent treatment of Mohammed, brought fresh Muslim calls for resolution 16/18 to be properly implemented.

The OIC’s ambassador to the U.N. in New York, Ofik Gokcen, tweeted that the attack in Paris and reaction to it underlined the importance of “renewed commitment to resolution 16/18.”

‘Text book example of diplomatic success’

At Thursday’s event, organized by the Geneva-based non-governmental organization Universal Rights Group (URG), Harper said resolution 16/18 lays out a concrete program of action that can “make a real difference on the ground” in promoting religious tolerance.

“Today’s headlines make it imperative that the Human Rights Council maintain the consensus.”

Harper later tweeted, “resolution 16/18 a text book example of diplomatic success. Taking a matter that had become divisive + finding common ground.”

“Resolution 16/18 is the path forward to combat religious intolerance,” he said. “History clearly indicates the more divisive path is a dead end.”

Joining him on the panel was Akram of Pakistan, as well as representatives of Turkey and Britain.

Zamir Akram, Pakistan’s ambassador at the U.N. Human Rights Council. (Photo: Pakistan Mission, Geneva)

Several days after the Charlie Hebdo attack, Akram – on behalf of the OIC – met with U.N. human rights commissioner Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein to discuss Western media portrayals of Mohammed.

Declaring that freedom of expression does not provide a license to insult the religious beliefs of others, Akram accused some Western governments of double standards for criminalizing anti-Semitic statements or Holocaust denial while defending “Islamophobia” on free speech grounds.

Muslims were fully justified in demanding respect for their faith, he said, since it was a religion of peace. The actions of a few fanatics should not be used to defame Islam, he added.

After Charlie Hebdo – in its first edition after the deadly Jan. 7 attack which cost the lives of its editor, staffers and others – published more caricatures of Mohammed, Pakistan’s government wrote to the OIC secretary-general, “recommending appropriate measures including legal action [and] criminalization of all acts of Islamophobia.”

A primary reason for Western opposition to the OIC’s “religious defamation” campaign was concern that it sought to extend to democratic societies the type of blasphemy provisions enforced in some Islamic states.

Under Pakistan’s penal code, a person convicted of insulting Mohammed or desecrating the Qur’an faces a death sentence or life imprisonment. At least 14 Pakistanis convicted of blasphemy are on death row and 19 others are serving life sentences.

Extrajudicially, scores of people accused of blasphemy – at least 51 between 1990 and 2012, according to a Catholic justice body – have been killed by angry mobs or individuals. Even defenders of those accused of blaspheming Mohammed have been targeted.

Human rights researchers have called the laws the root cause of violence against minority Christians in Pakistan.

Pakistanis protest against alleged blasphemy against Mohammed, in Lahore on Wednesday, May 19, 2010. (AP Photo/K.M. Chaudary)

‘Defamation of religions and the prophets’

In a recent report, URG found that consensus around resolution 16/18 was “at breaking point,” with the West and OIC nations arguing over “whether the solution to intolerance lies in strengthening the enjoyment of fundamental human rights or in setting clearer limits thereon.”

URG suggested ways to “re-energize” the process, saying Western and OIC states should work on “agreeing on a single, coherent policy covering the mutually interdependent issues of freedom of religion, religious discrimination and religious intolerance.”

Other recommendations included urging OIC states not to revive their “religious defamation” drive, “which achieved little beyond the polarization of East and West.”

Last month the International Union of Muslim Scholars, an influential Sunni body, called on Islamic nations “to submit a global law draft criminalizing defamation of religions and the prophets and the holy sites of all, through a global conference to discuss clauses in complete freedom.”

The Qatar-based IUMS is headed by Muslim Brotherhood spiritual leader Yusuf Qaradawi.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow