Iran Raises U.S. Qur’an-Burning at U.N. Human Rights Council, While Qatar Revives ‘Religious Defamation’

By Patrick Goodenough | February 29, 2012 | 5:30 AM EST

Iranian Foreign Minister Ali-Akbar Salehi, addressing the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva on Monday, February 27, 2012, urged “swift and decisive” council action to condemn the burning of Qur’ans at a U.S. military base in Afghanistan. (UN Photo by Jean-Marc Ferre)

( – As Iran’s foreign minister asked the U.N. Human Rights Council to condemn the burning of Qur’ans at a U.S. military base in Afghanistan, his Qatari counterpart breathed new life into the Islamic bloc’s supposedly suspended “religious defamation” drive, calling for “bold steps aimed a banning religious hatred.”

The two appeals came as the HRC opened its month-long spring session in Geneva this week.

Deadly violence erupted last Tuesday after news broke that troops at Bagram had burned copies of the Qur’an – unintentionally, according to the Pentagon. Military sources said the texts had been used to carry extremist messages between militant detainees held at the base.

Despite a series of apologies from U.S. political and military leaders – from President Obama down – rioting spread to many parts of Afghanistan, with at least 40 lives lost, including at least nine people killed when the Taliban, which has sought to capitalize on the issue – dispatched a suicide car bomber to an air base in Jalalabad on Monday.

Also among the dead were four American soldiers – two shot dead by an Afghan soldier during a protest on Thursday, and two found shot dead Saturday in their office at the Interior Ministry.

Addressing the HRC on Monday, Iranian foreign minister Ali-Akbar Salehi called the Qur’an-burning a “deplorable act of incitement” and “a gross violation of human rights, hurting sentiments of Muslims worldwide.” The council should take “swift and decisive” action to condemn it, he said.

As was the case in earlier condemnations by both the Iranian and Pakistani governments, Salehi’s statement made no mention of the bloodshed and contained no appeal for restraint.

Qatari foreign minister Khaled bin Mohammad al-Attiyah addresses the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva on Monday, February 27, 2012. (UN Photo by Jean-Marc Ferre)

In his address to the HRC, Qatari foreign minister Khaled bin Mohammad al-Attiyah – without referring directly to the Bagram incident – deplored what he called the targeting of Arabs and Muslims and the “defamation” of religion.

“The international community still faces a  major challenge due to the worsening impact of racist practices, racial discrimination, acts of violence and related conflicts,” he said. “These practices have become evident in the defamation and negative stereotyping of religions, as well as in the incitement to violence against people on the basis of their religion and belief.

“I refer here in particular here to Arab and Muslim communities that are targeted by extremist political movements for personal goals,” al-Attiyah continued. “Combating this problem requires concerted efforts by the international community to take bold steps aimed at banning religious hatred …”

The HRC has been the preferred venue for a decade-long campaign by the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) aimed at outlawing what it calls the “defamation” of religion.

The bloc of 56 Muslim says the measure is needed to combat “Islamophobia” – a term it uses to describe anything from cartoons depicting Mohammed to Republican presidential candidates’ voicing concern about shari’a.  Opponents led by Western democracies saw the “religious defamation” move as an attempt to ban any critical scrutiny of Islamic teachings or practices.

Each year until 2010, the OIC piloted a resolution on the subject through the council, although with declining support as freedom of expression and religious freedom concerns grew.

‘Sacred symbols and personalities’

Last year, in a tactical shift, the OIC agreed to put the “defamation” drive aside, in favor of a  resolution condemning the stereotyping or stigmatization of people based on their religion, but dropping the “defamation” terminology and not calling for legal proscriptions, except in the specific case of religion-based “incitement to imminent violence.”

The Obama administration welcomed and co-sponsored the initiative known as resolution 16/18, which was adopted “by consensus.” The State Department hosted a meeting in Washington in December to discuss ways to “implement” it.

While the U.S. and other Western governments portrayed resolution 16/18 as a breakthrough after a decade of polarizing debate at the U.N., the OIC stated clearly that the measure had the same aim as the earlier “defamation” ones. It also never hid the fact that the “defamation” campaign was merely suspended, not dead.

On Tuesday, OIC Secretary-General Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu also addressed the HRC session.

“Combating Islamophobia as well as vilification of all religions and denigrations of symbols and personalities sacred to all religions is a matter of priority at the OIC,” he said.

He discussed resolution 16/18 and announced that the European Union and the OIC would both host events this year as follow-ups to the one in Washington last December, to take forward the process of implementing the resolution.

“Recent events characterized by loss of lives in Norway and Afghanistan underscored the importance of concerted and consensual international action,” Ihsanoglu said, alluding respectively to last July’s killing spree by radical Norwegian ultra-nationalist Anders Behring Breivik, and the violence that followed last week’s Qur’an-burning incident at Bagram.

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow