Religious Persecution Wolf in Anti-Defamation Sheep’s Clothing

The Inquisition is back, and this time it has set up shop at the United Nations. Consider the resolution “Combating the Defamation of Religions” passed by a comfortable margin last week at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva (and passed by the General Assembly every year since 2005).

The resolution decries a “campaign of defamation of religions,” intensifying since 2001, in which “the media” and “extremist organizations” are “perpetuating stereotypes about certain religions” (read: Islam) and “sacred persons” (read: Muhammad). It urges UN member states to provide redress “within their respective legal and constitutional systems.” Capitalizing on cartoon riots and Western anxieties over the excesses of the war on terror, the language conflates peaceful criticism of Islam with anti-Muslim bigotry and seeks to stifle speech in the name of “respect for religions and beliefs.”

In my capacity as UN representative for the secularist think tank Center for Inquiry, I spent a surreal two weeks at the Council participating in the negotiations over the language of this resolution, sponsored by a 57-member intergovernmental body called the Organization of the Islamic Conference, or OIC.

After one of these sessions, I found my way into a private conversation with the chair of the negotiations, a delegate for the government of Pakistan. We were soon joined by the representatives of the United States, Canada, and the European Union. There we were, “the West,” standing at the front of an empty conference room, gingerly trying to reason with this feisty, yet solicitous, Pakistani diplomat.

The American delegate noted that, “History shows that criminalizing speech doesn’t work,” when the chair interrupted her to propose a case he hoped would hit home. Suppose someone were to say that the Virgin Mary was not a virgin but a promiscuous woman? What could be the purpose of this statement, he asked, except mockery?

Canada pointed out that ‘defamation’ has a specific legal meaning—involving the spread of falsehoods that harm some individual—which is not applicable to cases of religiously offensive speech. For starters, religious personages like Mary and Muhammad are not alive, so they’re not, legally speaking, persons who can be harmed. Undeterred by the Canadian’s reductio ad absurdum, the Pakistani delegate responded that this is precisely why we need the authorities to protect them against insult: they are not around to defend themselves.

Never mind how one would demonstrate, in a court of law, the falsity of a scurrilous rumor about a far-distant and long-gone (and quite possibly never-there) religious figure. Ironically, all the world’s heretics could never do more damage to the reputations of gods, saints, and prophets than has already been done by their devoted followers. The odd thing about God is that no matter how much He is slandered, his livelihood never seems to suffer as a result. One of the perks of being a necessary being, I guess, is that you never lose your job no matter how unpopular you become. In that respect God may be the ultimate bureaucrat. I didn’t bring this up.

It would all be absurdist comedy if it didn’t have such grave consequences. Defamation of religions resolutions are far worse than useless; they are a direct threat to human rights. While they will have no impact on blasphemy in Western democracies (which already censor themselves far too often), they serve to legitimize the suppression of peaceful political and religious dissent elsewhere—first and foremost in the Islamic states themselves.

Despite its public claim to represent the interests of the so-called Muslim world, the OIC is criticized most strenuously by those within OIC countries, like Arab human rights advocates and persecuted minority faiths like the Baha’i and the Ahmadiyya. These vulnerable communities know that the talk of safeguarding belief abroad will only safeguard the abuse of power at home.

In Pakistan, blasphemy is a crime punished by death or life in prison. Pakistan’s blasphemy laws are regularly used against the Ahmadiyya, who are officially considered apostates, guilty of leaving Islam. In January of this year, four Ahmadi boys were arrested and charged with desecrating the Prophet because of something they allegedly scrawled on the bathroom wall of a mosque in Punjab province. Although no evidence was presented, the head of the local police felt that “the gravity of the case against Islam justified arresting the children first.” Local Sunni extremists had made it clear that they would avenge the insult if the authorities would not.

Pakistan’s hypocrisy is virtuosic. Even as it appeases the most hateful elements in its society—actually imprisoning and killing its religious minorities for nothing more than civil dissent from orthodoxy—it spouts self-righteous lectures at Europe and America on the stereotyping of minorities and the need to promote diversity.

This issue is not a simple matter of faith versus speech. It is also faith via speech, and here secularists and believers converge on what is fundamentally sacred: the freedom of the individual conscience. As I put it in a statement on the floor of the Council last fall, “every religion begins with a prophet or teacher who speaks the truth as his or her conscience dictates it, no matter who may disagree. The advance of religious truth hangs, in the end, on the right to doubt, to dissent, to discover. To combat the so-called defamation of religions is, then, in the end, to combat religion.”

The US delegate started to explain why her country would continue to resist this whole approach, but the chair was looking away, reading a message on his Blackberry. Apparently he was unaware that he was exemplifying America’s winning solution to the problem of speech that offends: Ignore it, and if that’s not enough, start your own conversation.

Meanwhile, the Islamic states and their political allies are hard at work extending legal human rights to religious beliefs by expanding the protections against “advocacy of religious hatred” found in existing international treaties. And as of now, they have the votes to do it.