Politics & Policy

An Anti-Blasphemy Measure Laid to Rest

An essential battle for freedom is won at the U.N.

A long-term campaign by the U.N.’s large Muslim bloc to impose worldwide blasphemy strictures — like those in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Iran — was given a quiet burial last week in the Human Rights Council, the U.N.’s main human-rights body. At the session that ended in Geneva on March 25, the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), sensing defeat, decided not to introduce a resolution calling for criminal penalties for the “defamation of religions” — a resolution that had passed every year for more than a decade. This is a small but essential victory for freedom.

The lessons in how this campaign rose and fell will be important in protecting the international human rights of freedom of expression and religion against other threats, particularly as the U.S. engages with the new order in Egypt and other Arab states.

#ad#The OIC’s anti-defamation effort was inspired by Ayatollah Khomeini’s infamous 1989 fatwa, directing “all zealous Muslims to execute quickly” the British author Salman Rushdie and others involved with his book TheSatanic Verses. While not explicitly embracing vigilantism, the Saudi Arabia–based OIC, an organization of 56 member states, quickly endorsed Khomeini’s novel principle: that Western law should be subject to Muslim measures against apostasy and blasphemy.

The OIC worked to institutionalize this principle within the United Nations. By 1999, it began introducing resolutions annually in the Council’s predecessor (the now-discredited Human Rights Commission) to condemn any expression that could be construed, however broadly, as “defamation of religions” — but meaning, specifically, criticism of Islam.

These resolutions turned the liberal, half-century-old international human-rights regime on its head. “It deviates sharply from the historically rooted object of international human rights protections by addressing the interests of religious institutions and interpretations, rather than the rights of individuals,” as Leonard Leo, chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), explained to Congress in 2009.

That the term “defamation of religions” was undefined and based on an amorphous concept, with a U.N. survey showing no common practice among member states, made it all the more threatening. Though the resolutions were non-binding, they gained stature as a U.N. agenda perennial. Former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Jeane Kirkpatrick once observed that such resolutions tend to seep like “groundwater” into international court and commission decisions.

In 1999 and 2000, the anti-blasphemy resolutions were adopted by consensus, with, inexplicably, the U.S. joining in. In 2001, the West began to vote against them, but, as a “public” appointee to the U.S. delegation in Geneva in 2001, I was told by the State Department to stop debating the issue with my Egyptian counterpart, who led the drafting committee — it was just too sensitive. Without Western support, each year, until now, OIC resolutions to this effect have passed in what purports to be the premiere global human-rights forum.

The resolution’s popularity peaked with the 2005–06 Danish cartoon crisis. Speaking for the OIC, Pakistan typically introduced these resolutions, arguing in words calculated to appeal to Western liberals: “Unrestricted and disrespectful freedom of opinion creates hatred and is contrary to the spirit of peaceful dialogue and promotion of multiculturalism.” Non–OIC members, even democracies, voted for the resolution. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon and U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour signaled their support. Emboldened, the OIC began introducing the concept in other U.N.-sponsored fora, such as the General Assembly itself, where “defamation against religions” resolutions have easily passed.

However, in 2007, support within the Council declined, and the “yes” votes steadily eroded thereafter. By the spring 2010 Council session, the resolution was a mere four votes short of defeat. This year, the OIC did not have the confidence to introduce it.

This sudden shift came about because, in 2006, the Bush administration took the lead in defending free speech, energetically pressing Council members to oppose the resolution. The EU also became engaged, emphasizing the need to protect individuals, who “should not be viewed as mere particles of homogeneous and monolithic entities.” Until then, the West member states had been unfocussed and unwilling to push back on a controversial, religiously framed issue.

#page#The Western bloc’s support gave traction to the persistent lobbying efforts against the resolution by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, members of Congress — notably Representatives Chris Smith (R., N.J.), Frank Wolf (R., Va.), Trent Franks (R., Ariz.), and Eliot Engel (D., N.Y.) — and a broad array of non-governmental organizations, from the Becket Fund to Human Rights First.

Since 2009, after an initial misstep of co-sponsoring with Egypt a Council resolution endorsing “hate speech” laws — which, in Europe, are often used to prosecute cases of blasphemy against Islam — Obama’s State Department has also taken up the banner for free speech. This year, instead of the “defamation against religions” resolution, the Council adopted a resolution — at America’s urging — denouncing religious discrimination and violence that did not call for curbs on speech. Secretary Clinton explained after the vote that the “antidote” to offensive expression is “more expression and the open public debate of ideas, not laws that restrict expression in the name of tolerance.”

#ad#The coup de grâce for the resolution was the murder this month of Pakistan’s renowned minister of minorities, Shahbaz Bhatti, because he opposed his own country’s blasphemy laws. His murder followed that of Punjab governor Salman Taseer and the death sentence given for blasphemy to a Christian mother of five whom Taseer had defended. It was now impossible for even the Human Rights Council to ignore the disgrace of the blasphemy laws of Pakistan — the main sponsor of its blasphemy resolutions all these years. 

The defense of the right to speak freely in the West about Islam, and within Islam, is far from over — last month, an Austrian court convicted Elizabeth Sabaditsch-Wolff of “defaming” the Islamic prophet Mohammad during a political-party briefing. But what happened last week at the Council was not simply a tempest in a teapot. America could not afford to lose this debate — not over a universal human-rights code that reflects our values, and not in an international forum that we disproportionately fund. It showed that America, when it finds its voice, can still exert diplomatic influence in the defense of fundamental ideals concerning human rights and freedoms — even in a notoriously difficult international context.

— Nina Shea is director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom and co-author, with Paul Marshall, of Silenced: How Apostasy and Blasphemy Codes are Choking Freedoms Worldwide(Oxford University Press, November 2011).

Nina Shea — Nina Shea is the director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom.

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