The UN Human Rights Council has passed a resolution condemning “stereotyping of religion”. It’s a move that flouts freedom of expression – and it was sponsored by the United States.
“We firmly believe that the exercise of freedom of expression carries with it special responsibilities,” said Pakistan’s delegate, speaking for the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC). The “defamation” of religion, he said, “results in negative stereotyping of the followers of this religion and belief and leads to incitement, discrimination, hatred and violence against them, therefore directly affecting their human rights.”
Following the OIC’s logic, one could equally apply the language of the resolution to Islamism, a political form which is arguably a “contemporary manifestation of religious hatred, discrimination and xenophobia. It results in negative stereotyping of the followers of other religions and beliefs and leads to incitement, discrimination, hatred and violence against them, therefore directly affecting their human rights.”
The resolution has no effect in law but provides Muslim countries with moral ammunition the next time they feel central tenets of Islam are being ridiculed by Western politicians or media through "negative racial and religious stereotyping."
American diplomats say the measure — co-sponsored by Egypt — is part of the Obama administration's effort to reach out to Muslim countries.
Rights groups cautiously welcomed the resolution as an improvement on earlier drafts, but said Egypt was in no position to lecture other countries about free speech as it has a poor record on the matter.
"Egypt's cosponsorship of the resolution on freedom of expression is not the result of a real commitment to upholding freedom of expression," said Jeremie Smith, Geneva director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies.
"Unfortunately, the text talks about negative racial and religious stereotyping, something which most free expression and human rights organizations will oppose," said Agnes Callamard, executive director of London-based group Article 19.
"The equality of all ideas and convictions before the law and the right to debate them freely is the keystone of democracy," she said.
Around the world, free speech is being sacrificed on the altar of religion. Whether defined as hate speech, discrimination or simple blasphemy, governments are declaring unlimited free speech as the enemy of freedom of religion. This growing movement has reached the United Nations, where religiously conservative countries received a boost in their campaign to pass an international blasphemy law.
It is viewed as a transparent bid to appeal to the "Muslim street" and our Arab allies, with the administration seeking greater coexistence through the curtailment of objectionable speech.
Thinly disguised blasphemy laws are often defended as necessary to protect the ideals of tolerance and pluralism. They ignore the fact that the laws achieve tolerance through the ultimate act of intolerance: criminalizing the ability of some individuals to denounce sacred or sensitive values. We do not need free speech to protect popular thoughts or popular people. It is designed to protect those who challenge the majority and its institutions. Criticism of religion is the very measure of the guarantee of free speech — the literal sacred institution of society.
I don't go around saying things like that because I think it is counter productive. However, no one should be able to say someone can't criticize.
I believe freedom of speech is more important than your right not to be offended. "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it" - attributed to Voltaire but more likely Evelyn Beatrice Hall.