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This is a troubling development, especially since countries across the globe are increasingly using anti-blasphemy laws to punish religious minorities for questioning the beliefs of the majority religion. Such laws are no longer confined to Islamic countries; they are now being called for in democratic societies. Individuals who came to the West to escape persecution are once again in danger.
Attending the UN Human Rights Council was Pastor Daniel Scott; the first person tried under the blasphemy laws in Pakistan. Astonishingly, he fled to Australia twenty years ago only to be accused of religious intolerance for a message he gave on the differences between Christianity and Islam. By equating the expression of differences of belief with religious intolerance, the sponsors of this resolution reveal their own intolerance of differing viewpoints.
It is surely no coincidence that the key proponents of this resolution are also those countries that have a history of religious intolerance. For instance Pakistan, which sponsored this resolution on behalf of the OIC, has the harshest blasphemy laws in the world and consistently imposes them on religious minorities such as Pastor Scott.
Carefully veiled as a move to prevent religious intolerance, this resolution in effect legitimizes intolerance in any country against religious minorities. In Sri Lanka, Buddhists oppose Christians; in India, Hindus oppose Muslims and Christians; in Bangladesh Muslims oppose Hindus and Ahmadis; and in Egypt, Muslims oppose Baha’is and Christians.
In an intervention before the Council, Heather Cayless of the Jubilee Campaign stated, “In a diverse society everyone’s personal beliefs will at some point be offended. The vague wording in this resolution leaves all adherents, both in minority and majority beliefs open to accusations of religious intolerance.”
A recent example of this is a ruling made by Egyptian courts just last month: A Muslim law student was sentenced to three years in prison for “insulting Islam.” In this case, the government justified the Court’s decision on the basis that freedom of expression can be limited in order to protect against the “defamation of religions,” namely Islam. Egyptian law, however, only protects the three “heavenly religions” and in December 2006 the highest Court ruled that Baha’i are not Muslim and therefore are not protected from defamation.
The UN’s history of passing resolutions “combating the defamation of religions” is creating a new universal right – the right to not be offended. Such a right protects the belief over and against the believer. Moreover, objective criteria for evaluating “defamation” are now replaced by considerations of the feelings and emotions of the hearer irrespective of intent or effect.
Ultimately, this threatens the freedoms of expression and religion, which include the right to express views critical of or even hostile to the beliefs of others. The pursuit of religious truth necessitates critical interpretation of religious texts and doctrine. Anti-blasphemy and defamation laws suffocate this freedom.
This is not the first time in history countries have tried to defend religious beliefs over and against the believer, but the lessons of the Inquisition and Salem Witch Trials should point to the danger of bowing to such legislation. As the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief stated before the Council, “Balanced and proportionate responses are necessary because extreme measures only give rise to further extremism.”
This resolution poses a dire threat to the rights of individuals – both Muslims and non-Muslims alike – to discover and live out their religious beliefs without fear of prosecution. It is imperative that the international community rise up to oppose the UN’s endorsement of anti-blasphemy laws, and expose these resolutions for what they really are: legal justifications for undermining the freedoms of religion and expression, and institutionalized intolerance against religious minorities.
True religious tolerance can only be protected in societies that respect the right of individuals to freedom of expression and religion, allowing unfettered dialogue on dissenting religious opinions as individuals search for truth.
Tina Ramirez is a Congressional Fellow for Rep. Trent Franks. She attended the 4th session of the UN Human Rights Council to speak at a side event on “Anti-Vilification Laws and Their Chilling Effect on Religious Expression” sponsored by the Jubilee Campaign.