Saudis Host Meeting on Combating Religious Intolerance 1/2 Mile From Blasphemy-Flogging Site

By Patrick Goodenough | June 5, 2015 | 4:12am EDT
The Organization of Islamic Cooperation held a meeting in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia this week, on 'combating intolerance, negative stereotyping and stigmatization of, and discrimination, incitement to violence and violence against, persons based on religion or belief.' (Photo: OIC)

( – Amid criticism over Saudi Arabia’s hosting of an international conference on combating intolerance and discrimination based on religion or belief, two U.S. lawmakers have introduced a resolution calling for the global repeal of blasphemy laws, citing the kingdom as an especially egregious offender.

The bill, introduced by Reps. Joseph Pitts (R-Pa.) and Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) states that “Saudi Arabia has used criminal charges of blasphemy to suppress discussion and debate and silence dissidents.”

The resolution highlights the situation in three countries in particular – Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Egypt – and calls on the president and State Department “to make the repeal of blasphemy laws a priority in its bilateral relationships with all countries that have such laws through direct interventions in capitals and in multilateral fora.”

The text refers to the case of Raif Badawi, a Saudi blogger sentenced 13 months ago to 10 years’ imprisonment, a substantial fine, and 1,000 lashes “for, among other charges, insulting Islam and religious authorities.”

In an incident that drew widespread condemnation, Badawi received the first 50 lashes in January, in a public flogging in front of a mosque in central Jeddah. The shari’a-based sentence was meted out one day after the State Department urged the Saudis “to cancel this brutal punishment.”

Less than a mile-and-a-half away from the scene of the flogging, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) on Wednesday and Thursday this week held a conference on “combating intolerance, negative stereotyping and stigmatization of, and discrimination, incitement to violence and violence against, persons based on religion or belief.”

That is the formal title of a 2011 U.N. Human Rights Council (HRC) resolution (aka resolution 16/18), which sought to break a logjam between a campaign of free expression championed by mostly Western democracies and longstanding attempts by Islamic states to counter speech they view as blasphemous.

Attendees at the OIC event included the Obama administration’s ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, David Saperstein, the administration’s acting envoy to the OIC Arsalan Suleman, and the current president of the HRC, Germany’s Joachim Ruecker.

U.N. Watch, a Geneva-based non-governmental organization that monitors the HRC, questioned Saudi Arabia as venue for the event “despite its reputation as one the world’s worst violators of religious freedom.”

Executive director Hillel Neuer said it was bad enough that the kingdom had been elected onto the HRC in the first place.

“But for top U.N. human rights officials to now visit Jeddah and smile while human rights activist Raif Badawi languishes in prison for the crime of religious dissent, still under threat of further flogging, is to pour salt in the wounds,” he said. “It’s astonishing.”

Badawi’s wife, Ensaf Haidar, in a Twitter message noted the close proximity of the OIC conference participants’ hotel to the place where her husband was flogged, adding, “Shame on you.”

Stereotyping, profiling, stigmatization

The HRC resolution at the center of the Jeddah gathering has received mixed reviews.

The Obama administration, which co-sponsored it with Egypt, called it a “remarkable advance” in diplomacy, since it came after a decade-long clash between democracies and the OIC over the Islamic bloc’s promotion of an annual U.N. resolution calling for the “defamation of religion” to be outlawed.

But while democracies hailed resolution 16/18’s affirmation of “the right to freedom of opinion and expression,” Islamic nations emphasized aspects dealing with religious stereotyping and incitement.

The text expresses concern about “derogatory stereotyping, negative profiling and stigmatization of persons based on their religion or belief” and urges governments to adopt “measures to criminalize incitement to imminent violence based on religion or belief.”

Exactly how and when an action or words – or a cartoon – could be construed as inciting “violence based on religion or belief” remains unstated.

Some critics saw the move a just another, more insidious, tactic in the OIC’s campaign to prohibit what it views as blasphemous speech.

Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Egypt

Some of the OIC countries that spearheaded the “defamation of religion” drive over the years also enforce some of the world’s harshest anti-blasphemy laws, which often disproportionately affect Christian minorities.

In their resolution, Pitts and Jackson Lee cite three of them – Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Egypt.

Apart from the Badawi case in Saudi Arabia, the bill refers to “a significant increase in the use of blasphemy-type laws” in Egypt since the overthrow of former President Hosni Mubarak, noting it had continued during and after the Muslim Brotherhood government of Mohammed Morsi, who was toppled in mid-2013.

Two cases in Egypt are cited – a three-year prison term handed to an atheist student for Facebook posts ruled blasphemous, and a six-year prison sentence for a Coptic Christian convicted of defaming Islam, also on Facebook.

The resolution refers also to the situation in Pakistan, mentioning Asia Bibi, the first Christian woman to be sentenced to death there, for supposedly insulting Mohammed. She remains on death row.

The bill also recalls the slaying late last year of a Pakistani Christian couple, accused of blasphemy and thrown into a brick kiln; and the May 2014 murder of a human rights lawyer, killed for defending someone accused of blasphemy.

The Pitts-Jackson Lee resolution calls on the administration to oppose any effort at the U.N. “to create an international anti-blasphemy norm, such as the 1999–2010 defamation of religions resolutions.”

It also expresses support for efforts like HRC resolution 16/18, “consistent with the first amendment of the United States Constitution.”

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