If you’re planning on visiting an Arab country for business or pleasure, be sure not to engage in any blasphemous dancing, singing, or miming — yes, miming.
On March 24, diplomats and experts from the European Union, the U.S., and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) met in Doha, Qatar, for the fourth meeting of the Istanbul Process. A series of meetings, inaugurated under former secretary of state Hilary Clinton, the Istanbul Process aims to bridge the gap between the West’s approach to fighting religious intolerance and the approach of the OIC. If the participants are serious about countering religious intolerance, their choice of venue is curious.
On November 26, 2013, the justice ministers of the 22 members of the League of Arab States (all of which belong to the OIC and whose annual summit in Kuwait coincides with the Doha meeting) endorsed the Arab Guideline Law for the Prevention of Defamation of Religions, a model blasphemy law drafted by none other than the ministry of justice of Qatar. The text includes a broad prohibition against “defamation of religions.” According to an English translation, practices include, inter alia:
1. Blasphemy against the divine essence or questioning it or infringing on it. 2. Contempt or disrespect [for] or [offense to] any of the religions or by defaming them or insulting them or ridiculing them or infringing on them. 3. Any infringement on the heavenly books, through abuse or alteration or desecration or prejudice. 4. Making fun of one of the prophets or the messengers or sacred symbols of these religions or their wives or their families or their companions or insulting or ridiculing them or infringing on them.
This sweeping definition would likely entail a ban on atheism and even agnosticism, which clearly questions “divine essence.” Moreover, the concepts “contempt,” “prejudice,” “ridicule,” “insult,” and “infringement” are not defined and would seem to encompass anything from mild satire to serious criticism to outright hostility toward protected religions. Proscribed offenses may take the form of “audio or visual [content] or written [content], or [content delivered through] electronic [media] or via the Internet or communications networks, or industrial materials, whether through [spoken] words or [in] writing, or [through] expressionist [illustration] or cartoon or symbolic drawing, or [through] photography or singing or acting or mime or electronic data or other forms [of communication,] and in any language.”
Accordingly, any expression, however vague or symbolic, may violate the law, which explicitly bars invoking “freedom of expression and opinion” as a defense. The law includes a sweeping definition of complicity and criminalizes the mere possession of “blasphemous” material for the purpose of “informing others.” But the most drastic measure is found in article 16, which states that the law covers acts “perpetrated wholly or partly within or outside the territory of the State and even if the perpetrator is a non-national.”
In other words, if you share the supposedly “blasphemous” Katy Perry video “Dark Horse” on Facebook in Illinois, organize an atheist conference in Geneva, or mime The Satanic Verses on the streets of London, you may be prosecuted in any of the Arab member states that choose to enact this law. The Qatari draft and its endorsement by the Arab League members of the OIC raises the question of how serious these states’ commitment to tolerance really is.
For more than a decade, the OIC, through successive resolutions at the U.N.’s Human Rights Council (HRC) and General Assembly, has pushed for a ban on “defamation of religion.” In 2011, a compromise was reached with HRC Resolution 16/18, which, while far from flawless, dropped any reference to “defamation of religion.” The Istanbul Process has been preoccupied with how to interpret and implement Resolution 16/18. But it has long been clear that the OIC states are still wedded to the idea of prohibiting defamation of religion through blasphemy laws and hate-speech laws, despite the consensus on the wording in 16/18.
Accordingly, the meeting in Qatar should prompt government representatives and experts from liberal democracies to unequivocally reject the idea that the prohibition of defamation of religion, or blasphemy laws, are legitimate tools in the fight against religious intolerance. A 2011 Pew study shows that countries that enforce blasphemy laws are significantly more likely to experience religious intolerance and violence than countries that have repealed or fail to enforce such laws. In 2014, Pew reported that “social hostilities involving religion reached a six-year peak in 2012,” with the sharpest rise occurring in the Middle East and North Africa.
Moreover, international human-rights norms clearly do not support the Arab League’s proposed law. Sweeping bans against blasphemy violate not only freedom of expression but also the right to freedom of conscience and religion, since these laws target atheists, religious minorities, and those who hold heterodox religious beliefs or beliefs that conflict with majority or state-sponsored creeds. More generally, the OIC states’ undermining of the supposed common ground set out in Resolution 16/18 should prompt the U.S. and the EU to insist on red lines. Unless the member states of the OIC and the Arab League drop further regional attempts to prohibit defamation of religion, the Istanbul Process must end. If that leads the OIC states to reintroduce in U.N. bodies new resolutions on defamation of religion, so be it.
The last resolution on defamation of religion was passed by the Human Rights Council in 2010, with 20 votes in favor, 17 against, and 8 abstentions. This represented a significant loss of support for the OIC position. Were the OIC to reintroduce a new resolution in the Human Rights Council, it would likely fail. That would be a strong signal to the OIC that prohibiting defamation of religion is a clear violation of basic human rights.
— Jacob Mchangama is a lawyer and a co-founder of the Freedom Rights Project. He has served as a lecturer in international human rights law at the University of Copenhagen and has commented and published on human-rights issues in international media including BBC World News, Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, The Economist, Huffington Post, the Daily Beast, the Times of London, the Wall Street Journal Europe, and France 24. He is the author and presenter of Collision! Free Speech and Religion, a short documentary on the global battle of values over free speech and religion.