The right to criticize beliefs

salman-rushdie-2Last week, the UN Human Rights Council approved a resolution that calls on nation states to limit criticism of religions in general and Islam in particular. Proposed by Pakistan on behalf of other Islamic countries, the resolution passed with the votes of 23 countries on the 47-member council. According to Freedom House, many of the sponsors and supporters of the measure have some of the poorest records of respecting freedom of speech and religion in the world. Critics of the resolution, mostly from Western countries or liberal activists in Muslim countries, say that the resolution is dangerous because it calls for laws that declare topics off limit for discussion, leading to intolerance of any view that some Muslims may find offensive. Some UN members pointed out that the idea that a given religion has rights against defamation is an idea at odds with freedom. They say that all beliefs must be open to debate, discussion and criticism and that rights against defamation belong solely to individuals.

It is probably no surprise to readers of this blog that the lead up to the passage of this resolution garnered only modest mainstream media notice. But the foreign press and attendant pundits have been all over it. While the Associated Press and Agence France Presse didn't really do the story justice, I thought Reuters had some good coverage.

Reporter Robert Evans had some helpful reportage and analysis with his story about groups opposed to the resolution:

Some 200 secular, religious and media groups from around the world on Wednesday urged the United Nations Human Rights Council to reject a call from Islamic countries for a global fight against "defamation of religion."

The groups, including some Muslim bodies, issued their appeal in a statement on the eve of a vote in the Council in Geneva on a resolution proposed by the 56-nation Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC).

Such a resolution, the statement said, "may be used in certain countries to silence and intimidate human rights activists, religious dissenters and other independent voices," and to restrict freedom of religion and of speech.

He explains the history of the anti-defamation movement and more about the concerns of groups opposed to the resolution.

After the resolution passed, Reuters ran another story with context about the Human Rights Council:

The 47-member Human Rights Council has drawn criticism for reflecting mainly the interests of Islamic and African countries, which when voting together can control its agenda. . . .

India and Canada also took to the floor of the Geneva-based Council to raise objections to the OIC text. Both said the text looked too narrowly at the discrimination issue.

"It is individuals who have rights, not religions," Ottawa's representative told the body. "Canada believes that to extend (the notion of) defamation beyond its proper scope would jeopardise the fundamental right to freedom of expression, which includes freedom of expression on religious subjects."

I wish that we'd hear much more from the Muslim countries that backed the resolution. I also wish there would be more discussion -- both from friendly and critical sources -- about what's driving these resolutions and what the Muslim countries hope to accomplish with them. You can get that from blogs and pundits, but it would be nice to see more mainstream discussion.

Image of novelist Salman Rushdie, whose death the Supreme Leader of Iran called for, via Wikipedia Commons.

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