Why we should all be glad a global blasphemy law is no longer on the cards

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.

Hat tips to Stuart at eChurch who usually beats me to these stories and Archbishop Cranmer who has been drawing attention to this issue for quite some time.

Categories: Human rights, International politics, Islam

Tags: , , , , , , ,

7 replies

  1. Right on! We should never let anyone censor anything we wish to say. The free market of ideas will promote good ideas and insult bad ideas. Simple enough. If slandering religions is promoted by the general public and intellectuals, then there must be some truth in it.

    • The problem is that if the public are ill informed or have been fed propaganda it is quite possible that they will believe something untrue. Nazi Germany is an example where the public were manipulated, so there is no guarantee that just because intellectuals and many people believe something it is necessarily true.

      • Gillan: as I was writing I was thinking of that counterargument exactly… You are absolutely right, but that’s why the people who do actually dig a little deeper than the surface need to speak up. What was that poem… Something like:

        They came for the Communists, but I said nothing because I wasn’t a Communist…

        I’m not gonna write the whole thing cuz I’m on my cell phone and I’m sure u know the poem 🙂

  2. Its very frustrating when we hear the Christian faith being misrepresented, satirized or insulted but its important to be open to criticism, think about areas where its valid, lets not be too precious. Christian ideas should stand on their own merit. Freedom of speech is vitally important even though it would be nice to see it exercised more sensitively and responsibly. So many crass attempts to be funny or gratuitously insulting. But that’s the price we pay for democracy. Rather that than censorship. Lets never ever entertain the idea of a blasphemy law. The National Secular Society recently highlighted a survey where 80% of Christians agree.

    • Thanks Graham. This issue highlights one of the biggest differences between Christianity and Islam. Christianity is a much more open and free religion that is willing to let people ask questions and challenge it. If you are secure in your beliefs, you are much more likely to be able to respond to challenges appropriately without resorting to threats or trying to suppress those who disagree with you.

  3. Reblogged this on BecomingEllipsisMark and commented:
    Read it and support it.

  4. Reblogged this on Richard's Watch and commented:
    Thank you Gillan for an excellent commentary upon this most welcome news – especially for including Dr Sookhdeo’s editorial. Perhaps we could say the ‘oiks’ have been hoisted by their own petard. The violent hatred expressed within the basic beliefs of their religious ideology should be evident to all rational people.

    With all due respect to individual Muslims, the religion seems to regard their prophet as more holy than their god; is that not blasphemy? Until Islam has a Reformation this dividing difference between civilisations will remain. But I believe the Holy One of Israel is the one to do this – after all many Muslims are having direct revelations of Jesus and learning who he really is, which is not as Islam supposes!

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