From the National Secular Society

Last week the United Nations’ Human Rights Council condemned “defamation” of religion, and called upon member states to ban literature and other materials containing “racist or xenophobic ideas” that might lead to hostility against religious groups – although Islam is the only religion mentioned in the resolution.

Islamic states joined with Mexico, the Russian Federation and China in supporting the measure which passed 24–14. There were nine abstentions. The Human Rights Council resolution expressed concern at “negative stereotyping” of religion, and excoriated “attempts to identify Islam with terrorism.”

The Council delegate from Pakistan, who also represented the Organization of the Islamic Conference, declared: “The resolution is tabled in the expectation that it will compel the international community to acknowledge and address the disturbing phenomena of the defamation of religions, especially Islam.”

News observers suggested that the resolution grew out of violent protests by Islamists over the Danish cartoons published in September 2005 depicting the prophet Mohammed. Muslims, backed by Christian, Jewish and other religious groups, condemned the drawings and called for anti-blasphemy legislation. In 1989, similar protests spread through the Arab world, Asia, Europe and even the United States over the publication of Salman Rushdie’s book The Satanic Verses.

These incidents have fuelled a debate over the status of religion in modern society, and raised calls for the return of blasphemy statutes aimed at protecting religious groups from “hurtful” or defamatory remarks of any kind. Proponents debate how far such legislation should go, however. The U.N. resolution only mentions Islam, but representatives of other faiths have called for similar protection of all religions.

Indeed, some Human Rights Council member representatives expressed disappointment that the resolution did not explicitly cover “defamation” against all religions. According to a U.N. press release, delegate Carlo Alvarado from Guatemala said that his nation “condemned defamation of religions and any practice incompatible with the preservation of fundamental rights and freedoms,” but grumbled that the draft resolution “was unbalanced and gave importance to one single religion over all others.”

Similar sentiments were voiced by Munu Mahawar of India who repeated the claim that the resolution focused only on one religion, while “all religions were facing the problem of defamation in one form or another.”

None of the representatives took a position aggressively defending the virtues of free expression and secularism. The nearest we got to this came from Birgitta Siefker-Eberle of Germany who said that an “on-going dialogue” was the best way of resolving differences, and that it was problematic to reconcile “defamation” with discrimination.

Representatives of 24 countries voted in favour of the controversial resolution: Algeria, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Cameroon, China, Cuba, Djibouti, Gabon, Indonesia, Jordan, Malaysia, Mali, Mauritius, Mexico, Morocco, Pakistan, Philippines, Russian Federation, Saudi Arabia, Senegal, South Africa, Sri Lanka and Tunisia.

There were 14 opposing states: Canada, Czech Republic, Finland, France, Germany, Guatemala, Japan, Netherlands, Poland, Republic of Korea, Romania, Switzerland, Ukraine and the United Kingdom. Abstaining from the vote were: Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador, Ghana, India, Peru, Uruguay and Zambia.

Roy Brown, the main spokesperson for the International Humanist and Ethical Union, in a statement to the Commission, said: “On 14 March the spokesperson for the Organisation of the Islamic Conference referred to what she described as ‘a dire need to fill the judicial vacuum of deficiency in dealing with the question of respect for religions…’ and asked for ‘effective and legally binding measures for combating defamation of all religions and incitement to racial and religious violence’.

“This however is to confuse two quite separate issues: defamation of religion, and incitement to violence. All of us, Mr President, must condemn incitement to racial and religious violence, and in this connexion we hope that the OIC will condemn the death threats made last week by Islamic extremists against the Bengali writer Taslima Nasrin.

“Mr President, no-one has a duty to respect any religion. Furthermore, lack of respect for a belief should not be confused with hatred of the believer. It is the believer that merits protection, not the belief.

“And how are we to define defamation? Are we no longer to be permitted to condemn misogyny, homophobia, or calls to kill – if they are made in the name of religion? Are we obliged to respect religious practices that we find offensive? Is lack of respect for such practices to be considered a crime? Are ideas, are religions now to be accorded human rights? Surely, when religion invades the public domain it becomes an ideology like any other, and must be open to criticism as such. To deny the claims of religion is neither defamation nor blasphemy.

“Finally, one can only express dismay at the demonising of European secularism by the Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism. He clearly fails to understand that secularism – that is, state neutrality in matters of religion and belief – is not an expression of intolerance but a guarantee of religious freedom for all, a defence of the values on which our human rights are based, the very values that this Council should be seeking to protect.”

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