Stifling free speech — globally
A coalition of Islamic states is using the United Nations to enact international 'anti-defamation' rules
LUIZA CH. SAVAGE | July 23, 2008 |
Asma Fatima, a petite, bespectacled Pakistani diplomat in Washington, sat at the front of a crowded Capitol Hill hearing room on July 18, carefully considering whether a man seated a few places to her left on the panel should be jailed. The occasion was a panel discussion convened by a group of congressmen to educate their colleagues on the issue of religious freedom, and the man was Canadian Ezra Levant, who in February 2006 republished Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in his now-defunct magazine the Western Standard, which resulted in, among other things, two complaints of “discrimination” before the Alberta human rights commission. One complaint was withdrawn, but the other continues. If it is upheld, Levant could face a large fine, a lifetime order not to talk about “radical Islam” disparagingly, and be forced to issue an apology. If Levant does not comply with these orders, he could be imprisoned for contempt of court.
Fatima tried to find the right words to explain the depth of the emotions at stake. "The cartoon issue really, really hurt Muslims around the world," she told an audience that included congressional staffers as well as officials from the departments of State, Justice, and the media, and various human rights advocates, including a pair of Buddhist monks in bright robes. "There are certain things that should not be said." Ultimately, though, Fatima concluded that a journalist should be, as she put it "off the hook." Her government has not been so generous.
Pakistan and the other nations that have banded together in the Organization of the Islamic Conference have been leading a remarkably successful campaign through the United Nations to enshrine in international law prohibitions against "defamation of religions," particularly Islam. Their aim is to empower governments around the world to punish anyone who commits the "heinous act" of defaming Islam. Critics say it is an attempt to globalize laws against blasphemy that exist in some Muslim countries — and that the movement has already succeeded in suppressing open discussion in international forums of issues such as female genital mutilation, honour killings and gay rights.
The campaign gives a new global context in which to view Levant's ordeal and other recent attempts to censor or punish Canadian commentators, publishers and cartoonists. Human rights cases were brought against this magazine for the October 2006 publication of an excerpt of a book by Mark Steyn that, the complainants alleged, "subjected Canadian Muslims to hatred and contempt." David Harris, a former chief of strategic planning for the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, was sued for remarks he made on the Ottawa radio station CFRA linking a Canadian Islamic group to a controversial American organization. And in May, a Nova Scotia Islamic group filed complaints with Halifax police and the province's human rights commission against the Halifax Chronicle-Herald for a cartoon it considered a hate crime.
Pakistan brought the first "defamation of religions" resolution to the UN Human Rights Council in 1999 — before the attacks of 9/11 and a resulting "backlash" against Muslims. That first resolution was entitled "Defamation of Islam." That title was later changed to include all religions, although the texts of all subsequent resolutions have continued to single out Islam. The resolutions have passed the UN Human Rights Council every year since the first was introduced. In 2005, the delegate from Yemen introduced a similar resolution to the UN General Assembly, and it passed, as it has every year since, with landslide votes. In March, the Islamic nations were successful in introducing a change to the mandate of the UN's special rapporteur on freedom of expression — an official who travels the world investigating and reporting on censorship and violations of free speech — to now "report on instances where the abuse of the right of freedom of expression constitutes an act of racial or religious discrimination." The issue is expected to be a focal point of the UN World Conference Against Racism next year in Geneva (a gathering Canada plans to boycott after the 2001 meeting in Durban devolved into acrimonious exchanges over Israel).
The trend has rights advocates worried for numerous reasons, beginning with the language used. If the notion of "defaming" a religion sounds a little unfamiliar, that's because it is a major departure from the traditional understanding of what defamation means. Defamation laws traditionally protect individual people from being materially harmed by the dissemination of falsehoods. But "defamation of religions" is not about protecting individual believers from damage to their reputations caused by false statements — but rather about protecting a religion, or some interpretation of it, or the feelings of the followers. While a traditional defence in a defamation lawsuit is that the accused was merely telling the truth, religions by definition present competing claims on the truth, and one person's religious truth is easily another's apostasy. "Truth" is no defence in such cases. The subjective perception of insult is what matters, and what puts the whole approach on a collision course with the human rights regime — especially in countries with an official state religion.