Using the United Nations to Censor Speech
A coalition of Islamic states is using the United Nations to enact international “anti-defamation” rulesIt might seem that the right to defame a religion is not one that’s important to a civilized society, so who not prohibit defamation?
Pakistan and the other nations that have banded together in the Organization of the Islamic Conference have been leading a remarkably successful campaign through the United Nations to enshrine in international law prohibitions against “defamation of religions,” particularly Islam. Their aim is to empower governments around the world to punish anyone who commits the “heinous act” of defaming Islam. Critics say it is an attempt to globalize laws against blasphemy that exist in some Muslim countries — and that the movement has already succeeded in suppressing open discussion in international forums of issues such as female genital mutilation, honour killings and gay rights.
The trend has rights advocates worried for numerous reasons, beginning with the language used. If the notion of “defaming” a religion sounds a little unfamiliar, that’s because it is a major departure from the traditional understanding of what defamation means. Defamation laws traditionally protect individual people from being materially harmed by the dissemination of falsehoods. But “defamation of religions” is not about protecting individual believers from damage to their reputations caused by false statements — but rather about protecting a religion, or some interpretation of it, or the feelings of the followers. While a traditional defence in a defamation lawsuit is that the accused was merely telling the truth, religions by definition present competing claims on the truth, and one person’s religious truth is easily another’s apostasy. “Truth” is no defence in such cases. The subjective perception of insult is what matters, and what puts the whole approach on a collision course with the human rights regime — especially in countries with an official state religion.We don’t like such laws in any way way whatsoever, but we particularly don’t like the fact that such notions as “defaming a religion” will never be enforced in an even-handed way.
In a written brief [it was noted] that the resolutions seek to mimic the kinds of anti-blasphemy laws that exist in countries such as Pakistan. The UN resolutions “operate as international anti-blasphemy laws and provide international cover for domestic anti-blasphemy laws, which in practice empower ruling majorities against weak minorities and dissenters,” her brief states. Pakistan’s penal code includes a section that states that defiling Islam or its prophets is deserving of the death penalty; that defiling, damaging or desecrating the Quran will be punished with life imprisonment; and insulting another’s religious feelings can be punished with 10 years in prison. A 2006 report from the U.S. State Department on international religious freedom stated that such anti-blasphemy laws “are often used to intimidate reform-minded Muslims, sectarian opponents, and religious minorities, or to settle personal scores.” According to Amnesty International, Younis Masih, a Christian, was sentenced to death in 2007 for allegedly making derogatory remarks about the Prophet Muhammad. In Egypt, a professor at Cairo University was declared an “apostate” in 1995 for teaching his students to read parts of the Quran metaphorically, and was ordered to divorce his Muslim wife.
The fact that the resolutions keep passing, and that UN officials now monitor countries’ compliance, could help the concept of “defamation of religions” become an international legal norm, said Livingstone, noting that when the International Court of Justice at The Hague decides what rises to the level of an “international customary law,” it looks not to unanimity among countries but to “general adherence.” “That’s why these UN resolutions are so troubling,” she said. “They’ve been passed for 10 years.”
We can’t imagine anti-Christian bigots like Richard Dawkins or Christian-hating comics like Bill Maher ever being prosecuted. In reality, it’s only politically correct victim groups that get any protection.
There would be one huge irony if a prohibition against “defaming” Islam became law: the gay lobby, which itself often has the right to shut up speech hostile to homosexual acts, would find attacks on how Islam views homosexuality to be verboten.
A gay/Islamic war over “hate speech” would be an hilarious spectacle, but we would prefer simple free speech.