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…


  1. Irene Delse says

    Now I’m confused. Didn’t the UN just rewrite a resolution condemning religious intolerance without any mention of “defamation of religion”? Thus protecting free speech?

    Cf. Ed Brayton, last week.

    The novelty of this text is that it does not include the harmful concept of “defamation of religions.” Instead, the General Assembly resolution calls on governments to speak out and to condemn hatred, while encouraging open debate, human rights education, and interfaith and intercultural initiatives.

    (Quote from Human Rights First.)

  2. says

    I think the truth is that defamation of religion is included in the clause that speaks about incitement to religious violence. It is not clear that this protects speech critical of religion if such speech would be likely to incite to religious violence, which, as Islamists have let us know, is any “insult” to their prophet or religion. I think we are in trouble. As Turley says: “it continues the disingenuous effort to justify crackdowns on religious critics in the name of human rights law.” That’s a big big problem. Couldn’t the US government see this coming? They can’t be that naive, can they?

  3. says

    Eric – I think they could be that naive. They are theists, for one thing, unless they’re all just bullshitting for electoral reasons. I don’t trust them to get it. I trust Turley more than I trust them.

  4. Ken Pidcock says

    I find Jonathan Turley’s report way more obfuscatory than I would like to see. Obviously, Muslim countries target free speech, but it isn’t at all clear to me that the State Department is colluding with them.

    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.

    Give me something more coherent than that, pal.

  5. Michael De Dora says

    Thanks for the post, Ophelia. I consider CFI’s work at the UN very important, and I’m glad to see it get some attention.

    I have to say that I share Ken’s thoughts on the Turley article. Several people emailed that link to me to ask why CFI hadn’t yet issued a statement condemning the conference, as if it was evidence enough that State Department was actively working with the OIC to limit free speech. In fact, the US has been among very few staunch voices of reason on this subject. I’m not going to fault them merely for holding a conference on a very tenuous international issue without knowing exactly what was said at the conference (so far I’ve seen little reporting on that).

    That said, Ophelia and others are correct that there are still serious concerns regarding the UN’s recent work on freedom of speech and belief, even if they’ve abandoned the “defamation of religions” concept. You can read more on that here:



  6. Roger says

    As religious holy books say far more hateful things about other religions than atheists ever do, the logical conclusion would be that every religious organisation could be sued into bankruptcy by every other religion under such laws.

  7. Bruce Gorton says


    The US is currently debating the Stop Online Piracy Act, and its senatorial equivelent the Protect Intellectual Property Act. It removes several of the protections in the DMCA – such as safe harbour but also liability in the case of false reporting.

    Now if you followed the science and atheism debates on YouTube up to about a year ago, you would know all about how religious users abused the DMCA in order to censor non-religious speech.

    This new law would be abused the same way, except now websites would be hesitant to host any skeptic content at all because it could take their whole businesses down.

    And of course despite opposition from the broader public and experts in internet archetecture, the entertainment industry outspends social media about ten to one in Washington lobbyists so it will probably go through. Hell the committee hearings on it only invited one industry representative versus five campaigners for the law.

    Funny how a proposed law having bipartisan support is such a bad sign for citizens. It is almost like it represents a commonality of bribes.

    Anyway, the fact of the matter is the US government is no friend to free speech at the moment. It looks a lot like a paper democracy where there is no viable (As in able to not only win the election, but actually run the country) opposition much as the governments of a lot of the third world.

    And paper democracies tend not to place protecting free speech at the tops of their agendas.

  8. says

    I agree, Michael. I was delighted when CFI arrived on the scene a few years ago to join Roy Brown of IHEU, who had until then been carrying on (along with David Littman) a pretty lonely struggle.

    This conference though…It still seems to me to give unwarranted legitimacy to a very bizarre “organization” – and not just bizarre but autocratic and theocratic. It’s not clear to me why any legitimate government should talk to it.

  9. Jeffrey Kramer says

    As religious holy books say far more hateful things about other religions than atheists ever do, the logical conclusion would be that every religious organisation could be sued into bankruptcy by every other religion under such laws.

    Roger, who would be the Last Man[of God] Standing in that conflict? (Or would it end like the battle of the Kilkenny Cats? 🙂

  10. Michael De Dora says

    Ophelia, if you haven’t already seen it, the Religion Clause blog has an informative entry on this issue:


    The post includes a link to remarks by Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Suzan Johnson Cook and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Here’s a snippet of Clinton’s address:

    “Now I know that some in my country and elsewhere have criticized this meeting and our work with all of you. But I want to make clear that I am proud of this work, and I am proud to be working with every one of you. And I believe that this work is an affirmation of America’s values, but equally important an affirmation of universal values. Because we nor – no country individually has a monopoly on the truth, and we will do better when we live in peace with each other, when we live with respect and humility, and listen to each other. And it is important that we recognize what we accomplished when this resolution ended 10 years of divisive debate where people were not listening to each other anymore.

    Now we are. We’re talking. We have to get past the idea that we can suppress religious minorities, that we can restrict speech, that we are smart enough that we can substitute our judgment for God’s and determine who is or is not blaspheming. And by bringing countries from around the world here, we are affirming our common humanity and our common commitment to defend and promote fundamental rights.”

  11. says

    Thanks Michael.

    I think Clinton is talking crap. Since there is no other organization of countries grouped by religion, it just is not clear why Islam alone should get that kind of deference and access. And if she really thinks she’s going to persuade them to respect human rights…she’s in lalaland.

  12. says

    that we are smart enough that we can substitute our judgment for God’s and determine who is or is not blaspheming.

    IF God exists, and is represented in one of the religious traditions currently in existence, then this is another reason she’s talking crap: he told us what blasphemy looks like. In Matthew, he says if you speak against the Holy Spirit, that’s unforgivable blasphemy. Simple.

  13. says

    Unfortunately, the concerns expressed by previous commentators are well founded, except those questioning the author’s integrity.

    Secretary of State Clinton is part of the problem, not part of the solution. The divisive process she noted refers to division between Western Civilization and the OIC in debates on previous resolutions.

    To get a good grip on this issue it is necessary to read previous resolutions and the recent statements of Ishanoglu & Akhram.

    The following blog posts will provide most of the quotes and links you need.








    I hope that the link to the June-August ’11 issue of the OIC Journal is in one of those posts. If so, be sure to read the two cited articles. If not, search for it at http://issuu.com/ See p[ages 4 & 7.

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