The world has moved one step closer to total censorship. For the fourth year running, on December 18 the United Nations General Assembly passed a defamation-of-religion resolution that threatens to undermine the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Ironically, the UN's passage of the nonbinding resolution coincides with the 60th anniversary of the Declaration, which was adopted in December 1948. At the time, Eleanor Roosevelt predicted that it "may well become the international Magna Carta of all men everywhere." Roosevelt's insight has proven true.
In the 60 years since its passage, the Declaration has become one of the most translated documents in the world and has served as the foundation for a growing number of international treaties and laws promoting human rights.
Among the many rights acknowledged in the Declaration is "the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion." This expansive right includes "the freedom to change [your] religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest [your] religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship, and observance."
However, the right to freedom of speech and thought has now been placed in great jeopardy due to a concerted attack from the Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC), which has a permanent delegation to the UN. This group, which rejected the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as not being consistent with Sharia (or Islamic) law, represents more than 50 Muslim nations and is reportedly the most powerful voting bloc at the UN.
Over the course of the past 10 years, the OIC has purposefully and craftily proposed and advanced various resolutions before the UN, including this latest effort, to "safeguard" religion, specifically Islam, from defamation. What this amounts to is a thinly disguised effort by religious fundamentalists to curtail any form of criticism of Islam by restricting free speech globally.
Fundamentalism, which stresses strict and literal adherence to a set of basic principles, is worrisome in any form, whether it be social, political, or religious. Religious fundamentalists, however, are particularly dangerous. In attempting to impose their views on the rest of the world, religious fundamentalists are hostile to anything that disagrees with their religion. For example, in 2003, the governments of Bangladesh and Pakistan banned an edition of Newsweek magazine because it contained an article suggesting that some of the Koran's language had been mistranslated and, thus, misconstrued.
Routinely in Muslim countries, that hostility is backed by governmental regimes, resulting in devastating consequences. Examples abound. In November 2002, Hashem Aghajari, a history professor at an Iranian university in Tehran, was sentenced to death for apostasy after he questioned the rule of clerics and the principle of emulating religious leaders. In February 2007, an Egyptian blogger was sentenced to four years in prison for a post "insulting" Islam. In November 2007, a 54-year-old British schoolteacher working in Sudan was sentenced to 15 days in jail and deportation for allowing her students to name a teddy bear Muhammad, a common Muslim name. In October 2008, a Jordanian poet was arrested for incorporating verses of the Koran into his romantic poetry. If convicted, he could face up to three years in jail. An Afghan student was accused of blasphemy and sentenced to death for allegedly downloading and distributing a report on Islamic fundamentalists' oppression of women.
These acts of intolerance have, unfortunately, emboldened militant Islamists in non-Muslim countries to terrorize those who appear critical of Islam. In November 2004, Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh was shot and killed over his film Submission, which tells the story of a Muslim woman forced into an arranged marriage and abused by both her husband and uncle. Several years later, a Danish newspaper's publication of 12 caricatures of the prophet Muhammad incited widespread riots and violence throughout the Muslim world, resulting in more than 139 deaths and 823 injuries, as well as the Norwegian and Danish embassies in Syria being torched.
Consequently, fear of reprisals from Islamic fundamentalists is gaining momentum in non-Muslim nations. This was most vividly illustrated in September 2008 when Random House, an American company, discarded plans to publish the novel The Jewel of Medina. This was due to fears that the novel about Muhammad's third wife (and child bride) Aisha "might be offensive to some in the Muslim community, but also that it could incite acts of violence by a small, radical segment."
Fear is understandably a powerful weapon, and religious fundamentalists have learned only too well how to use it to their advantage. Yet the UN's support of a resolution that will ostensibly eradicate freedom of speech and thought seems to have more to do with a politically correct fear of causing offense and stirring up negative feelings than fear of reprisals.
For example, the latest "Defamation of Religions" resolution, which aims to criminalize under international law speech defamatory of religion, was passed by a vote of 86 to 53, with 42 abstentions. It had already been given the green light by the UN Human Rights Council and the Third Committee of the UN General Assembly. Specifically, this OIC resolution asks all countries to create legal and constitutional systems to outlaw speech that is an "incitement to religious hatred." Although purportedly universal in intent, the resolution specifically singles out only Islam and Muslims by name as targets of "an overall campaign of defamation of religions."
The danger, as Marc Stern of the American Jewish Congress points out, is that "by making such 'defamation of religion' a crime under international law, nations would be able to seek extradition and trial abroad of persons who make statements critical or offensive to one or all faiths anywhere in the world." Already, a group in Jordan has demanded extradition of the Danish cartoonist who created the Muhammad caricatures.
Fortunately, organizations such as the Coalition to Defend Free Speech (composed of such disparate groups as the American Jewish Congress, The Rutherford Institute, and the International Quranic Center, united in their efforts to protect free speech and expression), are urging UN member states to reject these defamation resolutions. But it will take a concerted effort by world leaders as well to ensure that the religious fundamentalists don't prevail. This will require a renewed commitment from the United States to actively champion human rights, rather than merely spouting platitudes.
Constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead is founder and president of the Rutherford Institute (Rutherford.org). His new book The Change Manifesto is now available in bookstores and online. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.