Sometimes following a shocking incident hitting the headlines there can be a knee jerk reaction from the authorities trying to provide some sort of restitution to right a wrong. This happened after the truly awful Innocence of Muslims film went global. In their rush to respond and even appease the uproar of anger from many muslim quarters, a handful of people and organisations bowed to the pressure and made statements that were not well thought through. A number of senior Anglican bishops from the global communion wrote to Ban Ki-Moon, Secretary General of the United Nations, asking for a declaration that outlaws “intentional and deliberate insulting or defamation of persons (such as prophets), symbols, texts and constructs of belief deemed holy by people of faith”.
At the same time the European Union along with the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), Arab League and the Commission of the African Union jointly issued a statement condemning the film, part of which said that, “While fully recognizing freedom of expression, we believe in the importance of respecting all prophets, regardless of which religion they belong to.”
The problem with these statements is that they give equal weighting to all religions and beliefs along with their prophets. How can I compare Christianity or Islam to cult leaders such as David Koresh or new-age preachers like David Icke? Can we really treat them equally and afford all of them respect? Is that something that the majority of people, irrespective of their beliefs can subscribe to?
Only days after these statements were made, leaders from the OIC, which represents 57 Islamic states, were at the United Nations General Assembly calling for a legally binding, global anti-blasphemy protocol. Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and his Pakistan counterpart, Asif Ali Zardari, both argued that insults against Mohammed, Islam’s prophet, incite violence and are not legitimate free speech.
This was in stark contrast to President Obama’s speech at the same gathering where he staunchly defended free speech: “The strongest weapon against hateful speech is not repression, it is more speech – the voices of tolerance that rally against bigotry and blasphemy.”
President Yodhoyono called on UN member states to adopt a legally binding instrument banning blasphemy, to serve as “a point of reference that the world community must comply with.”
This call from the OIC for a global blasphemy law is nothing new. They have been campaigning yearly at the UN since 1999 for a “Defamation of Religion” UN resolution. Support for this has diminished over time as religious groups, human rights activists, free-speech activists, and several countries in the West have condemned the resolutions. In 2011 the OIC opted for a weaker resolution against intolerance towards all religions last year. That more general, non-binding resolution, drawn up with the United States and the European Union was passed unanimously.
This year The OIC appeared to be moving towards its previous stance for a binding resolution.
There are a host of reasons why an introduction of international blasphemy laws would be dangerous. Barnabas Fund in a recent editorial on their website gave four main reasons why this would be the case:
‘A global blasphemy law must be firmly resisted for a number of reasons. Firstly, it directly contradicts existing human rights law. Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states:
‘Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression. This right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers.’
‘It is quite proper for the law to protect individuals from discrimination or violence on account of their beliefs, but it is not the role of states to protect beliefs per se.
‘Secondly, a law against the defamation of religion would in reality protect Islam more than other religions. The fervency that drives the extremists and the fear that grips their targets, as recent events have evidenced, would see to that. While Christians try to follow Christ’s command to “turn the other cheek” in response to insults and attacks, Muslims are called instead to restore their honour when it has been taken from them, and doing this is more important to them than life itself.
‘Christianity is one of the most maligned religions in the world; Christ is routinely abused, ridiculed and misrepresented in films, television programmes, adverts and articles. Christians have had to learn to bear the pain this causes them in order for the full freedoms that form the basis of any civilised and democratic society to be upheld.
‘As the debate over the conflict between Western freedoms and Islamic sensitivities continues, it is essential to understand that Muslims believe power and honour rightly belong to them. The Quran says:
“But honour, power and glory belong to Allah and to His Messenger [Muhammad], and to the believers.” (sura 63, verse 8)
‘Thirdly, a global blasphemy law would put Christians and other religious minorities in Muslim-majority contexts in a position of increased marginalisation and danger. One has only to look at the effect of “blasphemy laws” in specific countries such as Pakistan, where Christians and other non-Muslims are extremely vulnerable to false accusations. Many people spend years languishing in prison and are sometimes even murdered over the flimsiest accusation of blasphemy. Criminalising blasphemy in Pakistan has not resulted in greater harmony between religious groups; it has given the full force of the law to Islamic sensitivities, which has only served to exacerbate tensions between Muslims and minorities.
‘Finally, the calls from Muslims for protection and respect for Islam are outrageously hypocritical given the treatment of Christians and other religious minorities in most Muslim-majority contexts. Christians are routinely and systematically discriminated against, persecuted and violently attacked; in some countries, especially in the Middle East, there is a deliberate Islamist campaign to eradicate Christianity altogether.’
On Tuesday in a surprise move, Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, secretary general of the OIC, announced that they would not try again for United Nations support to ban insults to religion claiming that Western opposition has made it impossible for Muslim states to obtain a ban on blasphemy.
“We could not convince them,” he said. “The European countries don’t vote with us, the United States doesn’t vote with us.” He also highlighted the differing views of free speech between Western and Muslim countries saying that Western countries had a “strange understanding” of free speech if it could be abused to hurt and insult others.
It does not appear that the members of the OIC have had any change of heart regarding blasphemy laws, but rather a grudging acceptance that they will never gain sufficient support to win a majority vote on the issue at the UN. Ihsanoglu also encouraged countries with blasphemy laws to apply them against insults to Islam. Interestingly he added, “not particularly the one in Pakistan,” probably in reference to the way Pakistan’s has come under increasing criticism because of its use to abuse minority Christians.
So maybe in the end the OIC has ended up defeating itself. As they have continued to campaign for stricter laws to protect insults towards Islam, the more attention has been drawn to countries where these laws are in place and the more obvious it has become that such laws only increase persecution.
No one enjoys seeing or hearing their beliefs being insulted, but to refuse to allow others to question or challenge them is to attribute superiority to ourselves, becoming judges of the rest of humanity on behalf of the god, ideology or system we believe in. This is an arrogance that only brings hatred and division and should always be strongly resisted by those who believe persecution of our fellow humans is unacceptable.