Blasphemy Battles Continue at the United Nations

Jan. 6, 2010


"Blasphemy!" It's a cry as old as freethought, perhaps as old as religion. It's also a crime wherever religion can get enough control of government to impose it. And now anti-blasphemy laws are making a comeback-at the United Nations of all places.

If the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) has its way, the U.N. will impose a global blasphemy law under the guise of combating "defamation of religions." The OIC, which represents 56 countries with significant Muslim populations, has been sponsoring U.N. resolutions against "defamation of religions" since 1999. These have been passed every year by the United Nations Commission on Human Rights and its successor in Geneva, the UN Human Rights Committee. Since 2005, the U.N. General Assembly itself has adopted resolutions against "defamation of religions." So far, these resolutions have not had the force of international law, but the OIC is working to change that.

Defined as disrespecting God, blasphemy may seem to be the ultimate victimless crime. But all too often the real victims of blasphemy laws are humanists who dare to speak out. Just ask Dr. Younus Shaikh, the humanist leader in Pakistan who spent more than three years on death row after being charged with blasphemy in 2000. Or Dr. Taslima Nasrin, the humanist writer from Bangladesh who listened to a mob of 300,000 people demand that she be hanged for blasphemy. In response, her government issued an arrest warrant against her for "hurting religious feelings."

In both cases, the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) successfully campaigned to save the lives of these courageous humanists. Yet both must still live in hiding, fearing for their lives, even in the West.

Speaking of the phrase "Even in the West," I find myself using it a lot these days to puncture a certain complacency among Humanists confident that secular progress will take care of itself. Progress never happens unless we work for it. Reactionary religion always fights back.

If you don't believe me, check out the new blasphemy law that Ireland introduced this year. Or consider the Danish cartoonists, editors and publishers living in fear of their lives because they dared to poke fun at the Prophet Mohammed. Now a Jordanian court has summoned these Danes on charges of blasphemy. Jordanian prosecutors say that they hope the case "will help establish an international law against slandering religion."

IHEU has been leading the campaign against the blasphemy push at the U.N.. Our teams in New York and Geneva have pushed back with policy papers, briefings and lobbying within the U.N. In a 15-page report titled, Speaking Freely About Religion: Religious Freedom, Defamation and Blasphemy,

IHEU rebutted the claims that freedom of expression must be restricted to protect freedom of religion and detailed how outlawing "defamation of religions" would violate many long-established principles of international law. Furthermore, the IHEU report suggests that the concept of outlawing "defamation of religions" is derived from the Islamic Republic of Pakistan's own laws against blasphemy.

All this work is producing results. For example, attempts to include language against "religious defamation" in this year's "Durban II" U.N. anti-racism agreement were a complete and unexpected failure.

Yet we still have a long way to go to win this battle. On December 18, the UN General Assembly again adopted a resolution against "defamation of religions." After intensive lobbying by a diverse collection of civil society groups, including the IHEU and American Humanist Association, the majority for the resolution shrank to just 19 U.N. member states this year (80 in favor, 61 against, and 42 abstentions). Last year the majority was 33 and in 2006 it was 57. So despite another loss, the tide appears to have turned, and the resolutions remain legally non-binding.

Unfortunately, the OIC has opened a second front at the U.N. in Geneva. The obscure Ad-Hoc Committee on the Elaboration of Complementary Standards is debating whether to add an amendment about "defamation of religions" to the International Covenant on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (ICERD). Since ICERD has the force of international law, the amendment would outlaw "defamation of religion" in all countries that ratify it.

The fight for freedom of conscience goes on.

(Matt Cherry is International Representative for the International Humanist and Ethical Union. IHEU is the global union for humanist, Ethical Culture, atheist and other freethinking groups. With more than 100 member organizations in 40 countries, IHEU has Special Consultative Status with the United Nations.)