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Anti-blasphemy resolution at UN is absurd
The recent UN Human Rights Council draft resolution on “Combating defamation of religions” would make George Orwell roll over in his grave. If adopted by the UN General Assembly, it will give governments around the world unacceptable powers.
In the name of preventing religious discrimination, the resolution insulates religious orthodoxy from all criticism. The resolution is incoherent, self-contradictory and a gross violation of the fundamental freedoms of religion and expression.
Sponsored by Morocco on behalf of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), it lends cover and legitimacy to the blasphemy laws of oppressive states which do not respect their citizens’ religious freedom. It thus precludes any possibility of an Islamic reformation, the very thing many Muslims want.
How can you “defame” a religion by saying something “false” about it? “Defamation” involves making a purportedly factual claim about someone that harms their reputation, but is false. For example, Jerry Falwell famously sued Hustler publisher Larry Flynt for printing a cartoon implying Falwell had sex with his own mother in an outhouse. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that public figures such as Falwell cannot be protected from offensive speech recognizable as satire. Why, then, should “religious symbols and venerated personalities” be protected from ridicule, as the resolution suggests?
Besides, religious disagreement is a very different beast than protecting individuals’ reputations. It is about the truth or falsity of the religion or religious claims. So, you can’t have a law against saying something “false” about a religion precisely because there is no agreed upon means of determining truth or falsity here.
If religious disputes are to be decided by the state, they will come down on the side of orthodoxy and against dissenting views every time.
The resolution claims, disingenuously, that it aims to combat discrimination based on religion. Of course, we should combat actual religious discrimination. For example, if you don’t get a job because you are Muslim or a Jew, that is unjustifiable discrimination. But this doesn’t mean that Islam or Judaism should be protected from criticism and debate.
The resolution is incoherent because it targets the wrong kind of discrimination and protects the wrong entities. Individuals have human rights to be protected; ideas, ideologies, religions and states do not.
Yet, the resolution claims that it protects freedom of religion. Invoking a measure that restricts freedom of religion (by seeking to make it illegal to express religious views that differ from official opinion) is a funny way to protect this fundamental freedom.
Belief systems such as religions are not homogeneous. Blasphemy laws exacerbate, rather than reduce, discrimination based on religion. Such laws violate state neutrality, since the state evaluates competing religious claims and punishes the dissenting minority.
Minorities who differ from the majority religion, for example Christians or non-believers in Muslim-majority countries, are at risk. So too are minority co-religionists, such as Ahmadis who do not view Muhammad as the last Prophet and are persecuted as apostates in many Muslim-majority countries.
Case in point: “Although Christians, Ahmadis, and Hindus make up less than three per cent of Pakistan’s population, they have accounted for about half of the blasphemy defendants over the last two decades,” according to “Policing Belief,” a recent Freedom House report. Pakistan’s Penal Code imposes capital punishment for blasphemy, including for defamation of Islam.
You can’t have meaningful freedom of religion and conscience without robust freedom of speech. For if we’re not free to express our deeply held beliefs, then it makes no sense to speak of freedom of religion and conscience.
In the case of blasphemy or “defamation of religion” laws, there is a dangerously slippery slope since they are often used to punish political opponents and dissidents. For example, bloggers in Pakistan and Iran who have criticized their governments have been charged with “defaming Islam.”
Unfortunately, it bears constant repetition: No government, church, mosque, synagogue or UN Human Rights Council should coerce you into thinking or saying – or, not thinking or not saying – what you believe (short of the infamous yelling “fire” in a crowded theatre exception).
The “defamation of religions” resolution is not about protecting human rights; it is about justifying repression of opinion not sanctioned by the authorities. The resolution does not advance freedom of religion; on the contrary, it curtails it in dangerous ways.
Dan Shapiro is a research associate with the Sheldon Chumir Foundation for Ethics in Leadership.