Waning Support for Defamation of Religion Resolution Undermines Defense of Islam, OIC Chief Says

By Patrick Goodenough | April 16, 2010 | 4:43 AM EDT

In this photo released by the Saudi Press Agency, the head of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, welcomes Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia on Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2010. The new U.S. envoy to the OIC, Rashad Hussain, stands behind Clinton’s left shoulder. (AP Photo/HO)

(CNSNews.com) – As its annual “defamation of religion” resolution loses ground at the United Nations after a decade of successes, the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) is urging its members to close ranks on an issue, which it calls vital for the defense of Islam.
Foreign ministers from the 56 mostly Muslim-majority countries that make up the OIC plan to discuss the issue when they hold their 2010 session in the Tajikistan capital of Dushanbe next month.
In the Saudi city of Jeddah this week, the Islamic bloc’s powerful secretary-general, Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, told senior officials preparing for the Dushanbe meeting that he hoped OIC member states would “lend particular attention” to the religious defamation issue.
He voiced dismay about the declining support for the resolutions, and the fact that some countries, which he did not identify, were “thinking of reconsidering the subject.”
“I wish to affirm that the member states’ commitment to support the OIC’s stand vis-a-vis this vote is of vital weight and should not be downplayed,” Ihsanoglu said. “For any laxity in this connection would mean the loss of a political and legal mainstay in the defense of our faith, our values and our sanctities.”
Ihsanoglu’s comments came after the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva late last month once again passed the OIC-drafted resolution on “combating defamation of religions,” but by a relatively slim margin.
Only 20 members of the 47-nation HRC voted in favor, while 17 opposed the measure and eight abstained. (Two were absent.)
It was the worst showing for the annual resolution since the OIC first introduced it at the HRC’s predecessor, the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, in 1999. 
Apart from the first two years, when the measure was adopted without a vote, the resolution has always passed easily, in a vote that showed a clear split between the Islamic bloc and its allies in the developing world on one hand, and mostly Western democracies on the other (see graph showing annual vote results since 2001).

Since the HRC began operating in 2006, its composition has also been a factor – more than half the 47 seats are reserved for African and Asian nations, and OIC members have held around one-third of the total. Supported by perennial allies like China, Russia, Cuba and South Africa, the OIC has therefore had no difficulty getting the measures passed.
A religious defamation resolution has also been adopted by the full membership of the world body, the U.N. General Assembly in New York, each year since 2005.
In both Geneva and New York, however, the OIC has seen its sizeable majority decline in recent years, coinciding with stepped-up opposition by Western governments and energetic lobbying by legal, religious freedom, freedom of expression and humanist advocacy groups.
The most visible trend has been countries in Latin America, Africa and the Pacific moving from supporting the resolutions to abstaining, and in some cases – mostly in Latin America – moving from abstaining to opposing the measures.
Of particular interest has been a small number of African OIC members – Cameroon, Burkina Faso and Benin – which have gone against their own organization’s initiative, abstaining rather than voting for the resolution.
Also noteworthy was Zambia’s decision to vote against the resolution at the HRC last month. It is believed to be the first time an African country has done so.
‘Deep concern over future of relations with West’
Opponents argue that the concept of defamation applies to individuals, not the religions to which they may adhere. They claim the resolutions, although non-binding, are designed to shield Islam from criticism, with the effect of undermining freedom of expression and jeopardizing the rights of religious minorities and of Muslims wishing to convert to other faiths.
The OIC asserts that the resolutions are needed to combat “Islamophobia,” a phenomenon it says has worsened since Islamic terrorists attacked the U.S. in 2001.
Defamation of religion resolutions typically cite counter-terrorism policies such as the profiling of Muslims, media allegations of links between Islam and terrorism, and the targeting of religious symbols – a reference, inter alia, to a Danish newspaper’s publication in 2005 of cartoons satirizing Mohammed.
The OIC has also highlighted last November’s Swiss referendum banning the building of minarets in that country as a fresh manifestation of the Islamophobia underlining the need for the resolutions.
In his address to the OIC officials in Jeddah, Ihsanoglu said the Swiss decision showed that Islamophobia has “now moved up from the level of individual practice or articles in the press to that of legislations and constitutions.”
As such, it prompted “deep concern over the future of Islamic relations with the West,” he added.
The OIC draws together 56 countries, most but not all with Muslim majorities, predominantly in the Middle East, Africa and Asia.
Although 40 years old, the bloc has become more visible and active at the U.N. in recent years. A 1995 “ten-year program of action” called on member states to coordinate positions, and accordingly they invariably vote as a bloc. Members also generally support each other in votes for leadership positions in international bodies.
Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow