Orthodoxy v freedom

Jonathan Turley was on the case in the Los Angeles Times in December.

This week in Washington, the United States is hosting an international conference obliquely titled “Expert Meeting on Implementing the U.N. Human Rights Resolution 16/18.” The impenetrable title conceals the disturbing agenda: to establish international standards for, among other things, criminalizing “intolerance, negative stereotyping and stigmatization of … religion and belief.” The unstated enemy of religion in this conference is free speech, and the Obama administration is facilitating efforts by Muslim countries to “deter” some speech in the name of human rights.

Although the resolution also speaks to combating incitement to violence, the core purpose behind this and previous measures has been to justify the prosecution of those who speak against religion. The members of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, or OIC, have been pushing for years to gain international legitimacy of their domestic criminal prosecutions of anti-religious speech.

And liberals and secularists have been pushing back – like the IHEU and CFI last March:

This week the Center for Inquiry joined the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) in opposing blasphemy laws at a meeting of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva.

CFI holds special consultative status as a non-governmental organization, or NGO, under the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). Both CFI and the IHEU have been active in recent years opposing so-called blasphemy laws, which aim to suppress criticism and free speech about religious beliefs.  Such laws have been used to persecute nonbelievers, religious minorities and religious dissidents.  In some countries, including Pakistan, the “crime” of blasphemy carries the penalty of death.

CFI drew up a joint statement, which was delivered before the Human Rights Council.

We welcome the report of the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief [A/HRC/16/53] and note that violence in the name of religion is apparently growing in many counties. For example, the recent murders in Pakistan of Governor Salman Taseer and Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti have shocked us all.

In this context, we note the excellent statement by the High Commissioner for Human Rights, released on 2 March [1] in which she condemned the assassinations and went on to call on the Pakistan Government to declare a moratorium on the application of the blasphemy laws.

We recognise the problems faced by governments around the world, including Pakistan, in confronting extremism, but the extremists must be confronted, Mr President.

The Pakistani assassins reportedly gave their victim’s opposition to Pakistan’s blasphemy laws as the reason for their murders, so it is incorrect to argue that the murders cannot be linked to the blasphemy laws – as the distinguished representative of Pakistan did here last Thursday.

For many years the OIC has argued for the criminalisation of defamation of religion, thereby providing legitimacy for their infamous blasphemy laws – infamous, because it is only in Pakistan and certain other States that blasphemy carries the death penalty.

It’s appalling that the Obama administration seems to be going in the other direction.

This year, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton invited nations to come to implement the resolution and “to build those muscles” needed “to avoid a return to the old patterns of division.” Those “old patterns” include instances in which writers and cartoonists became the targets of protests by religious groups. The most famous such incident occurred in 2005 when a Danish newspaper published cartoons mocking the prophet Muhammad. The result were worldwide protests in which Muslims reportedly killed more than 100 people — a curious way to demonstrate religious tolerance. While Western governments reaffirmed the right of people to free speech after the riots, they quietly moved toward greater prosecution of anti-religious speech under laws prohibiting hate speech and discrimination.

The OIC members have long sought to elevate religious dogma over individual rights. In 1990, members adopted the Cairo Declaration, which rejected core provisions of the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights and affirmed that free speech and other rights must be consistent with “the principles of the sharia,” or Islamic law. The biggest victory of the OIC came in 2009 when the Obama administration joined in condemning speech containing “negative racial and religious stereotyping” and asked states to “take effective measures” to combat incidents, including those of “religious intolerance.” Then, in March, the U.S. supported Resolution 16/18′s call for states to “criminalize incitement to imminent violence based on religion or belief.” It also “condemns” statements that advocate “hostility” toward religion. Although the latest resolution refers to “incitement” rather than “defamation” of religion (which appeared in the 2005 resolution), it continues the disingenuous effort to justify crackdowns on religious critics in the name of human rights law.

At that rate – we could all be prosecuted, or at least shut down. Good idea? No, I don’t really think so.

The OIC has hit on a winning strategy to get Western countries to break away from their commitment to free speech by repackaging blasphemy as hate speech and free speech as the manifestation of “intolerance.” Now, orthodoxy is to be protected in the name of pluralism — requiring their own notion of “respect and empathy and tolerance.” One has to look only at the OIC member countries, however, to see their vision of empathy and tolerance, as well as their low threshold for anti-religious speech that incites people. In September, a Kuwaiti court jailed a person for tweeting a message deemed derogatory to Shiites. In Pakistan last year, a doctor was arrested for throwing out a business card of a man named Muhammad because he shared the prophet’s name.

That’s the thing. The OIC member states are not the ones to tell secular liberal democracies how to talk about religion. There’s not one secular liberal democracy in the OIC, unless we’re thinking of the transitional ex-dictatorships as potential secular liberal democracies in the making – which, given the way the Egyptian elections are going, would seem to be more than a little over-optimistic. That’s why it’s appalling that Clinton is helping them hold their meeting.

Although the OIC and the Obama administration claim fealty to free speech, the very premise of the meeting reveals a desire to limit it. Many delegates presuppose that speech threatens faith, when it has been religious orthodoxy that has long been the enemy of free speech. Conversely, free speech is the ultimate guarantee of religious freedom.

But not of religious orthodoxy, so…