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Home > fundamentalism / shrinking secular space > “Religious Defamation”– A Flawed Concept?

“Religious Defamation”– A Flawed Concept?

by Sara Whyatt

Monday 18 August 2008

International PEN

Writers in Prison Committee
- Sara Whyatt, Programme Director

Presentation to the European Parliament Human Rights Committee
on 27 June 2008

Today I would like to talk about two United Nations Resolutions on “Combating Defamation of Religions” recently adopted by the General Assembly and the United Nations Council on Human Rights, and the problems that they pose to the practice of the right to freedom of expression.

These resolutions address religious defamation in general, with particular emphasis on a U.N.-documented rise of Islamophobia since 2001, new laws targeting or discriminating against Muslims, and negative projections of Islam in the media. The resolutions call upon member states, media, and non-governmental organizations to enhance dialogue and broaden understanding among cultures and religions, and they urge member states to prohibit the dissemination of racist and xenophobic ideas and materials that target religions. Legal protections against defamation of religions are also recommended.

The International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights allows for limitations to the right to freedom of expression in some limited cases such as protecting national security and public order, or respect of the rights and reputations of others, such as in civil defamation suits. The new UN expand these limitations to include respect for religions and beliefs.
Following the passing of these resolutions, the Mandate of the Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression was amended in a way that has caused alarm among free expression groups. In March this year, 40 free expression organisatoins, among them PEN and the International Publisher’s Association, issued a protest spearheaded by Article 19 and the Cairo Institute for Human Rights. It points out that the Rapporteur is now required to report on abuses of free expression when they constitute an act of religious or racial discrimination. The concern is that this justifies censorship and stifling dissent, when, until now, the Mandate’s role was protective. What is interesting about this protest is that more than half of the signatories came from Islamic states, indicating that there is concern from within the Muslim community as well as outside.

Religions are systems of ideas, embodied in institutions and sometimes states. As such, they cannot lie outside the bounds of questioning, criticism and description.

International PEN shares the concerns of many human rights organizations that measures aimed at curbing religious defamation pose significant risks for freedom of expression. Long experience has shown that laws devised to guard governments, organizations, and institutions against defamation are frequently used by these same institutions to deny individuals the right to freedom of speech.

International PEN commends and supports the United Nations in its efforts to protect the right of all individuals to hold religious beliefs and practice their religions freely, and to end all forms of religious discrimination. But we believe these aims are consistent within the existing UN mandates, notably Article 20 of the UN Declaration on Human Rights that protects the rights of individuals to practice the religion of
their choice freeyl.. Yet this can be done without sacrificing existing protections to the right to freedom of expression, notably Article 19, a right that recognizes the essential human need to explore, debate, challenge, and revise our understanding of all human experiences, including religion.

The resolutions refer to the defamation of religion being an “aggravating factor that contributes to the denial of fundamental rights and freedoms”. International PEN has seen that the application of laws covering similar ground in fact lead to increased attacks on fundamental rights and here are some examples of this:

- Sudan
One of the more stark examples of how religious defamation laws can lead
to tragedy, is that of the murder in Sudan of journalist Mohamed Taha
Mohamed AHMED. A year before, in 2005, he had stood trial for “insulting
the prophet Mohamed” which prompted demonstrations of thousands of
people in Khartoum calling for him to be put to death. He was subsequently
acquitted. However, this exposed him to the ire of extremists, many of whom had demanded that he be executed. In September 2006 he was kidnapped and murdered. A number of suspects have been arrested, nine of whom have themselves been sentenced to death. Here the decision to prosecute Ahmed not only breached international standards protecting free expression,
but apparently inspired his murderers.

- Bangladesh/India
One the most longstanding religious insult cases is that of the exiled
Bangladeshi author, Taslima NASRIN, whose trial opened 14 years ago on
charges of hurt to religious sentiments. Following death threats and “fatwas” calling for her execution, Nasrin was forced to flee her country in 1994, and has since been unable to return. The trial against her is still open. Recently Nasrin was forced to flee India, where she had attempted to set up a second home, after Muslim extremists called for her death. While Indian police did provide protection, her life was untenable in India. Had the Bangladesh authorities not chosen to pursue Nasrin in the courts, the original disruption around her case would have been resolved, she would not still be in exile, let alone in hiding, nor would Indian and other authorities continuously be required to tackle hostile extremists calling for her death. Once again, religious insult laws have exacerbated rather than ameliorated religious tensions.

Furthermore International PEN has observed instances whereby such laws have apparently been used as a pretext to arrest and silence government critics. The following are some examples.

- Afghanistan
- A journalist, is appealing against the death penalty, to which he was sentenced in January 2008. He is convicted for allegedly sharing information suggesting that Islam does not support women’s rights. An already disturbing case, it is made more so by the suggestion that the charges are being made as a means of punishing his brother, a well known journalist critical of local officials and warlords.

- Belarus
- In a country with a Muslim community that is barely existent (no more than 0.05% of the total population), a newspaper editor was sentenced to three years in prison in January 2008 on charges of reproducing the infamous “Danish Cartoons” in 2006. Accused of inciting religious hatred, the sentence was reduced to three months and he was freed. It appears that this charge may in fact have been a means of punishing him for articles supporting an opposition candidate during the March 2006 presidential elections.

- Egypt
- An internet writer, is serving four years in prison for “disparaging Islam” and defaming the President. He has long suffered harassment for his
commentaries on a mix of politics and religion, for which he was previously
detained in 2005.

- Morocco
- In a quite ridiculous case, two Moroccan journalists were sentenced to three year suspended terms in early 2007 for an article “Jokes: How Moroccans laugh at religion, sex and politics’. They were accused of “damage to the Islamic religion”.

As evidenced by these cases, International PEN believes that the existence of legislation that aims to protect religions can exacerbate religious tensions and can also be used as an excuse to dampen legitimate criticism of the authorities.

What is PEN asking of the European Parliament?

• Call for a review of the UN resolutions on religious defamation

• Work towards promoting the rights of all minorities, including religious, and to end oppression and violence motivated by racial or religious hatred while at the same time ensuring that free speech is protected.

• Create spaces for dialogue where those of diverging views on issues such as religion can meet and debate without fear of legal or physical retribution and by doing so build understanding and tolerance.