By Andrew Copson
In the wake of protests and violence in connection with the 'Innocence of Muslims' video, a number of political and religious authorities have made fresh calls for an international law against the 'defamation of religion', or 'blasphemy'. The calls have come from religious leaders in Egypt, both Muslim and Christian, from Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah (who called the video "the worst attack ever on Islam"), and most worryingly, the Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan made the same demand, telling journalists: "When it is in the form of a provocation, there should be international legal regulations against attacks on what people deem sacred, on religion."
These demands for an international prohibition of 'blasphemy' are not merely reactionary, they are opportunistic. Turkey currently holds the post of secretary-general of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). Representing 56 member states, mainly Muslim-majority countries, the OIC has spent the last several years pushing for an international 'defamation of religion' law at the United Nations. In its earliest attempts it was quite clear that protecting Islam alone from criticism or "insult" was the goal, but when this didn't fly with other UN Member States, the OIC turned broadened the concept of 'defamation of religion' to other religions.
Shockingly, and despite opposition from some western states, OIC resolutions against the 'defamation of religion' passed at the then UN Commission for Human Rights every year from 1999 to 2005, at the succeeding UN Human Rights Council every year from 2006-2010, and it even got through the UN General Assembly every year from 2005 to 2010. Fortunately none of these resolutions was binding; none entered international law. But certainly achieving such a global mandate for 'blasphemy' law was the goal of the OIC. Erdogan raises that spectre again now.
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As the OIC were pushing their resolutions, there were protests from many human rights groups, and concerted efforts from the International Humanist and Ethical Union. Our delegations at both Geneva and New York contested 'defamation of religion' resolutions at every opportunity. We provided all necessary arguments as to the illegality and infeasibility of 'blasphemy', or 'defamation of religion', as an object of international law. We produced a report giving evidence that such laws were neither desirable nor indeed lawful. Gradually the votes of approval from UN Member States declined until in 2011 no resolution on 'defamation of religion' was passed by either the HRC or the General Assembly. It seemed likely that for the time being the threat was over.
But now we are seeing widespread violent reactions to a video (a video which by rights should have been completely inconsequential). The riots are made possible in part by dubbing the English-language versions, and the protests are fueled by a number of Islamic governments which are actively encouraging protest, demanding YouTube remove the film or blocking the site, and seeking to arrest the filmmakers. It is all incredibly convenient and timely for those OIC countries still bent on introducing an international 'blasphemy' law. Prime minister Erdogan certainly seems to have taken advantage of it quickly enough, promising to raise the matter again at the UN General Assembly which, it so happens, begins next week.
Given that Ireland recriminalised 'blasphemy' as recently as 2009, it cannot be assumed even in the west that the bad ethics, contradictions and dangers inherent in 'blasphemy' are obvious. They must be rehearsed once again. All 'blasphemy' laws are deeply regressive: they are impossible to implement without fundamentally contradicting freedom of religion or belief and freedom of expression as the UN has itself made clear; 'blasphemy' laws render all meaningful dialogue between religions, and between religious people and non-religious people, potentially liable to some inflated charge and prosecution; and indeed in all countries which have them 'blasphemy' laws are used to suppress legitimate criticism of religion or to outright persecute minorities (both religious and non-religious). In just the last few weeks we've seen a young Pakistani girl from a Christian background attacked and held for weeks over supposedly 'desecrating' Islamic scripture (amid unrest so great that hundreds of Christian families were forced to flee her Islamabad suburb), the arrest and police abuse last week of Egyptian atheist Alber Saber, and the harsh judgment on three members of Pussy Riot partly on the basis of blasphemy. They join the dozens of annual cases in which religious and non-religious minorities are oppressed or persecuted under the auspices of national 'blasphemy' laws. The extent to which the general notion of blasphemy also protects clerics from accusations of wrongdoing, shrouding them in an aura of untouchability, preventing or delaying the exposure of crimes such as the Catholic clerical sex abuse scandal.
All 'blasphemy' laws are also deeply conflicted. PM Erdogan believes that "Freedom of thought and belief ends where the freedom of thought and belief of others starts". This is a perversion of liberalism. He is mirroring the old nugget about how “"he right to swing my fist ends where the other man's nose begins." But applying this to free speech is catastrophic; it essentially means that no one could critique anything anyone else believes, stifling not only dialogue but even debate internal to a religion, preventing the exposure of error and chilling progress. The whole notion of defamation of religion (that is, insulting or criticising beliefs) has nothing to do with individual human rights, except the rights of those whose freedoms are trampled under 'blasphemy' law. 'Blasphemy' laws do not protect individuals. They legitimise the persecution of innocents. 'Blasphemy' laws do not even protect religion, in the long term: it seems quite clear that part of the rationale for making 'Innocence of Muslims' was to mock earlier overreactions.
When last year no new 'defamation of religion' resolution was proposed at the UN, it was in part because the US and Pakistan jointly proposed instead a new resolution on "combating intolerance.. based on religion or belief". This resolution, which was approved, focused on hatred and discrimination, and the only speech it seeks to outlaw is the "incitement to imminent violence". Perhaps it is still something of a compromise, but at least it does not criminalise criticism of beliefs. There is already ample UN mandate for national laws that criminalise genuine persecution. So not only is 'blasphemy' law wrong-headed and oppressive, it is also simply unnecessary if what we are really interested in is individual freedom from hatred and discrimination.
Anyone who believes in freedom must contest all attempts to resurrect 'defamation of religion' or to institute any international law against 'blasphemy'.
Andrew Copson is chief executive of the British Humanist Association and and first vice president of the International Humanist and Ethical Union. Follow him on Twitter
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