The Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC), an association of the world's Islamic states, is pushing the United Nations to outlaw "defamation" of religion in general, and of one religion in particular.
My remarks that follow are based on 27 years of researching in the field of international relations and conflicts, and on a decade of teaching Religions and World Politics. Since I published my first book in Arabic in 1979, where I addressed the issue of relationships between civilizations and cultural blocs worldwide, I have had the opportunity to publish ten books and hundreds of articles focusing on the rise of ideologies including self-described, theologically-inspired ones such as Jihadism. I also had the opportunity to interact and meet politicians, legislators, authors and academics on three continents, particularly under the auspices of the European Foundation for Democracy. In addition, I was pleased to contribute to the preparation of legislation in the US Congress and initiatives at the European Parliament to defend religious freedom and basic rights of minorities around the world. Last but not least I was privileged to work with diplomats and NGOS on preparing for and passing UN Security Council Resolutions related to the Middle East.
From this background I have prepared a few comments about some initiatives put forth by members of the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) to be introduced at the UN Human Rights Council (headquartered in Geneva) and at the Durban II Conference on Racism, Xenophobia and Discrimination. These initiatives center on the driving principle of sanctioning what was coined as "defamation" of religions, and particularly the Islamic faith, under the term "Islamophobia."
Let me first state clearly that I do agree with UN efforts, declarations and legislations aimed at countering incitement to violence, physical and psychological against any religion or religious group, or on behalf of any religion or ideology against others. This principle is universal and should apply in protection of Muslims anywhere, and of non-Muslims as well. Any religion or religious group who are the victims of discrimination, intimidation or suppression must receive protection under international law. The United Nations and all of its institutions, including the Human Rights Council, as well as its conferences, including Durban II, must be even-handed and fair in extending their protection on a universal basis, to Muslims, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Shintoists, Taoists, all other religions as well as to Atheists and Agnostics. No exception should be made to a particular faith or community and no privilege should be granted to one at the exception of the other. Thus we believe that the highest protection granted to all is epitomized in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights of 1948. Creating another special Charter for one particular religion group would be an act of discrimination against all others.
However, the current proposal by the OIC member States to create legislation that would sanction perpetrators of "defamation of religion" has at least five problems.
Problem of Definition
First, there is a problem about the substance of the concept. Indeed how can one define "defamation" as an aggression against faith, any faith? Where is the limit between criticizing a set of beliefs or ideas and defaming a whole religion? How can members of a religion reform their system if they cannot criticize it? Will reform become synonymous to defamation? If the very concept of "defamation" is not clarified and thoroughly defined, legislation such a sought would lead to blocking reforms and punishing reformers. As it stands at this stage the wording of "defamation of religion" -- even if some are well intentioned in pushing for it -- is a stark reminder of the blasphemy laws of medieval times which were behind religious persecution and the Inquisition. Defamation of religion as a concept has to be specified and accepted within the state of international consensus so that it won't become a serious setback to human rights instead of an additional protection to it.
Targets of "Defamation"
By opening the door to create a new set of protected categories under international law, in this case religions -- and particularly the Islamic faith -- one has to expect that other religious groups, faiths and sects will also want to protect their entities from "defamation." To the camp irritated by so-called "Islamophobia" (since it still has to be debated internationally) other quarters will respond with "Christaphobia," "Judeophobia" or "Hinduophobia," let alone possibly "Atheophobia."
Muslims have serious reasons to fear discrimination and these fears have to be addressed, but Christians, Jews and Hindus (to name a few) also have significant reasons to fear discrimination. One example can illustrate so-called "defamation" as applied theologically to non-Muslims: the principle of "Infidels." Indeed, the theological identification of non-Muslims as Kuffar is considered by the latter as a standing, institutional, theologically-based defamation of their very faiths. If the "defamation of religion" initiative led by the OIC passes as legislation its very first implementation should automatically sanction the xenophobic principle of "Kuffar." If that concept is to be sanctioned under "defamation" those who are attempting to abuse the concept of "defamation" would have opened Pandora's box, exploding the relationship between modernity and religions. Is the OIC ready to include banning the term "Infidels" as part of its initiative?
Muslims' Human Rights
Such an international law, if enacted, will be harmful first to Muslims seeking their Human Rights inside the Muslim world. Authoritarian and totalitarian regimes, particularly those claiming theological supremacy, are already abusing their own Muslim citizens on the ground of defamation to religion, as they see it. The Taliban oppression of the Afghan people, including women and minorities, was claimed to be in defense of their faith against those who defamed it. The use of the principle of defending religion from defamation by ideological regimes has led to unparalleled abuse of human rights.
Such abuses, in different versions and degrees, have been practiced in Iran, Sudan and Saudi Arabia. In other more moderate or secular countries in the Muslim world, courts and clerics have issued rulings against so-called defamation, not always fairly. We've seen militant organizations and individuals taking the matter in their own hands despite the rule of law. Muslim women, students, artists, workers and secular political parties have been abused in the name of defending the faith against "defamation".
Such realities have also been part of the history of both Western and Eastern Christianity and other religious civilizations. In the contemporary Muslim world -- with all the tensions provoked by radicalization -- such an international "defamation law" would provide oppressive regimes and extremist factions with a formidable weapon to suppress opposition and intellectuals. Those Muslims who see "otherwise" would be accused of defamation of the official interpretation of the faith. Radical Sunni and Shia clerics would invoke this international legislation to suppress each other's sects. In short, if this concept is irresponsibly approved at the UN, it will have incalculable negative consequences on the Muslim world's civil societies and their future.
Non Muslim Minorities
In Muslim countries where non Muslims form a minority, such an anti-defamation agenda will be devastating against the weakest segments of society. The legislation will be used by Islamist regimes and militant organizations to repress these minorities under the aegis of defending "faith." Christian Copts in Egypt, who call for equality of treatment with other citizens, are often accused of "defaming" the state religion and thus kept in an awkward state of political backwardness. Baha'is, Christians and Jews are suppressed in Iran in the guise of defaming the established religious hierarchy. In Iraq, Assyro-Chaldeans have been physically attacked by Jihadi terrorists under the slogan of "insulting religion." In many cases, as in South Sudan, minorities reject the application of Sharia on their own communities. With "anti-defamation" becoming UN sponsored, any rejection of Sharia will automatically become synonymous with "insulting the faith." Hence religious minorities which should be protected under human rights laws will find themselves persecuted by such a declaration.
Perhaps the most dangerous consequence of the adoption of vague "anti-defamation" legislation -- allegedly to address "Islamophobia" -- will be to embolden the Jihadi Islamist movements around the world into further violence. Indeed, both Salafists and Khomeinists already claim they are defending the Muslim world against infidels. If the OIC is successful in forcing such a declaration through the UN or the Durban Conference into international law, Jihadists around the world will score a tremendous moral and psychological victory by claiming that the present conflicts are indeed about religion, and that Islam is indeed under attack at the hands of Infidels. An anti-defamation declaration will validate al Qaeda's agenda and reinforce the Iranian regime's ambitions. The Jihadists' ideology, based essentially on their interpretation of theology, builds radicalization by asserting that they are the defenders of the faith. A declaration against the defamation of Islam declaration will serve their strategic interests perfectly, and fuel their indoctrination processes. In short, it will protect their Takfiri ideology.
If an "anti defamation" declaration or covenant were to be forced through the UN Human Rights Council and the Durban II Conference in 2009 by the OIC, it would have dangerous consequences for the credibility of the UN Council in Geneva, for the state of international law, and for the state of human rights around the world. Among these consequences would be:
1. It will find itself opposed by many democratic and Human Rights NGOs and activists, both within the Muslim World and internationally, on the grounds of it creating discrimination against liberal Muslims, non Muslims and other faiths as well. Such a declaration will create more "phobia" than ever before since it is the product of the medieval concept of inquisition rather than the progressive concept of equality among individuals.
2. The Human Rights Council of the UN would thus be transformed by authoritarian regimes and radical ideologues into a "super regime" covering up and aiding in the oppression of democratic opposition, women and minorities in many countries. This would constitute a major blow to the credibility not only of the highest international institution in defense of Human Rights but eventually of the United Nations as a whole.
3. Such a declaration would naturally unleash a massive protest movement against the "super discrimination regime" by NGOs and activists from Arab, Muslim, and Hindu, African, Asian, Westerner and other backgrounds. The inquisitorial system advanced by members of the OIC against criticism and reform would be opposed as a return to the oppressive, medieval methods of the Dark Ages, which through harsh religious defamation laws caused great harm to Humanity and obstructed progress for centuries. There is no doubt that a contemporary Inquisition -- as proposed by some members from the OIC -- would deeply affect the Durban II Conference on Racism and Xenophobia, establishing a more lethal form of discrimination via this UN sponsored (and funded) event.
4. One would also expect to see Human Rights groups and pro-democracy movements demanding from national assemblies, particularly in liberal democracies, legislation to protect targeted segments of society such as women, intellectuals, artists, authors, publishers, minorities, reformists and other entities expected to suffer from "defamation persecution." Democratic constitutions cannot accept a setback to their long evolution away from religious inquisition and theological legal frameworks. It is to be expected that civil societies will rise against such a modern-day inquisition and blast its authors, including unfortunately those UN institutions which were initially designed to protect individuals from religious persecution.
5. Last but not least one would not be surprised if NGOs and individual citizens would take the matter to courts around the world where justice is independent. Intellectuals and opinion makers would seek both protection and reparation from the potential implementation of such an international declaration or legislation. Governments who pushed the "defamation-inquisition" through the UN, and the latter as well, may find themselves taken to court, regardless of the results. The image of judges requesting states and international organization to pay reparation for moral and physical damages caused by a UN declaration responsible for discrimination is not a bright one, but could very much become reality if the OIC project, initially designed by radical ideologues, is not withdrawn or at least restructured.
Here are some suggestions which might help in defusing the emerging crisis between the OIC members who are pushing for this declaration and those pro-democracy and Human Rights NGOs who are opposing it.
1. We suggest that neutral members in the UN Human Rights Council intervene to prevent this crisis by calling for a special forum where both points of views are heard and a new consensus is built: Government representatives, NGOs, and International Organizations should be invited by member states of the Council who wish to engage in this mediation. The mediation forum must find ways to address the real and specific concerns of the OIC regarding the psychological stress induced by severe attacks on religion on the one hand and the concerns of the Human Rights community with regards the discriminatory dimension of the current "anti-defamation" project on the other.
2. We also suggest the organization of a special conference of experts to address the following questions:
a. Define the concept of defamation of religions in accordance with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
b. Define the body that can determine the nature of defamation of religions, including the concept of "Kuffar" (infidels) and incorporate this issue in the general discussion of Racism and Xenophobia at the forthcoming Durban II Conference.
In the end, we hope that the voices of reason within the United Nations will prevail over the movement towards increasing radicalization, and strike a balance between the right to be protected emotionally and the right of expression: the one must not eliminate the other.
Dr Walid Phares is a Visiting Fellow at the European Foundation for Democracy in Brussels and a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington DC. Dr Phares is a professor of Global Strategies and author of numerous books on International Conflicts, including The War of Ideas: Jihadism against Democracies