New UN resolutions may strengthen Muslim persecution of Christians.
***Below from The Age***
This is no idle threat. Last month Latif Masih was shot dead after being bailed on another blasphemy charge, that he “desecrated a Koran”. His accuser then admitted he had invented the tale because he wanted to take over the 22-year-old Christian’s shop in Pakistan’s Punjab province.
Meanwhile,an Iranian court has sentenced to death a Muslim man who converted to Christianity , and an Afghan amputee has pleaded for help after being tortured in jail over his conversion. In the Maldives last month, parents tried to lynch a Christian teacher for drawing a cross on a blackboard (she was demonstrating the points of the compass).
In many Muslim countries, such as Egypt and Pakistan, Christian women are often abducted, raped and forced to marry Muslims, their kidnappers knowing the police will intimidate the victims’ families should they dare to complain. In almost every Muslim country, to be a Christian or another religious minority, or even a Muslim of the wrong description, may be to live a life of fear, danger and constant, systemic discrimination much worse than the undoubted difficulties faced by many Muslims in the West.
That is why there is real concern that the United Nations General Assembly this month is likely to approve a non-binding resolution against the “defamation of religion”. Its sponsors, the 56-nation Organisation of the Islamic Conference, say their ultimate aim is an international blasphemy law that will make it a criminal offence to disparage Islam.
The resolution is designed to bolster discriminatory laws in Muslim countries and to combat Islamophobia in non-Muslim countries, in many of which, the OIC says, there is a campaign to promote intolerance, especially by linking Islam with violence and terrorism.
The danger of even a non-binding resolution, according to campaigner Nigel Rooke, is that it utterly contradicts the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and will be used to legitimise blasphemy and apostasy laws (which make it a capital offence to convert from Islam) in the countries that have them.
Rooke is Australian head of Open Doors, a non-government agency working with persecuted Christians and lobbying governments and leaders around the world. On Monday it will present a petition of about 400,000 signatures to the UN’s assistant secretary general for human rights, Ivan Simonovic.
Open Doors and other critics of the resolution agree that it is entirely reasonable for Muslims to want to defend themselves and their religion, but say the best way to achieve that is through human rights provisions.
“With this campaign we are not against any religion or people group, we are for human rights,” Rooke says.
Critics say the resolution has six main problems. First, it conflicts with Article 18 of the Universal Declaration, which states everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, including changing religion.
Second, they say, the concept blurs the distinction between religion, which can be chosen and changed, and race, which cannot. Religions, unlike races, make prescriptions about how people should live, so criticism of religion is not the same as racial discrimination.
Third, when blasphemy of religion is regulated by law, the state (through a judge) must act as theologian and decide which views may be expressed and which may not.
The judge has to decide, say, whether a statement on Muhammad defames Islam and which interpretations of religion are valid.
Fourth, the critics say, existing laws in most countries already protect against against incitement to violence and guarantee human rights, however little the latter may be observed in practice – they should do the work the resolution is intended to accomplish.
Fifth, they argue that religions cannot have rights, only people, and, finally, banning criticism of religion conflicts with the principle of free speech.
Carolyn Evans, the new dean of the Melbourne University Law School, says: “It’s one thing to protect people. Protecting religions themselves from criticism or legitimate questioning is quite another.”
She points out that although the resolution is “definitely a child of the OIC and the strongest supporters are Islamic countries, the Russian Orthodox Church has also been quite keen on the idea, along with a handful of African and South American states”.
Evans says it is perfectly acceptable for Muslim countries to be concerned about Muslims in the West, and that individual Muslims don’t suffer violence or discrimination because of their religion. The problem is when religion itself is used against religious minorities and dissenting Muslims.
Many Muslims are critical of the resolution. Professor Abdullah Saeed, the Melbourne-based director of the National Centre of Excellence for Islamic Studies, says concerns the resolution could be interpreted to restrict freedoms are justified. “The idea that religions need to be respected is very important,” he says. “Intolerance against people of other faiths should be rejected, there’s no question about that, but the question is how do we handle it? Saeed says that in parts of Europe there is increasing intolerance of Muslims, and of Jews. He says this must be dealt with, but not through legislation. “I don’t think we can legislate respect. We have to use education, dialogue and other means to develop that level of acceptance and tolerance.”
The resolution, Saeed says, also fails to define defamation of religion clearly, or even what a religion or belief system is, let alone protecting them.
The OIC has been putting the resolution in one form or another since 1999 – to dwindling support from other countries. For example, last week the UN’s Third Committee (the last step before going to the General Assembly) approved the 2010 version by 76 to 64, with 42 abstentions, compared with 81 to 55 (and 43 abstentions) last year. This is despite changes designed to secure Western support, such as adding “Judeophobia and Christianophobia”, where previous resolutions mentioned only Islam.
Elizabeth Kendal, who analyses the Muslim countries for the World Evangelical Alliance, says UN votes have become unpredictable. “The General Assembly is so stacked with non-free states now, and states that vote in blocs in exchange for favours, there’s nothing you can do.”
Kendal says the Islamic countries have long wanted to move from a non-binding UN resolution to a binding one, then to have criminal instruments established for it. “The first thing was to get defamation defined as incitement, so that any criticism is defined as incitement to violence. That wasn’t accepted. A few years ago they were having a lot of success, but Western states are getting fed up.” Kendal says that if the resolution is approved, countries such as Australia will come under pressure from Muslim nations to curb criticism of Islam.
But even the critics of the resolution concede that intolerance of Islam is increasing in some Western countries, especially Europe. A British report this week said most hate crimes are not reported but have risen sharply since the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
“Evidence in the report of specific threats to Muslims is overwhelming and compelling,” says Robert Lambert, co-author of the report, part of a 10-year, Europe-wide research project by the University of Exeter’s European Muslim Research Centre. “In some remote places dreadful accounts are emerging of continuing intimidation, attacks and vandalism,” he says.
Turkish academic Burak Erdenir wrote in the Turkish Policy Quarterly in 2005 that suspicion against Muslims in Europe had turned into hostility. “For most Europeans, Islam is believed to have a connection with terror and violence. Muslims are identified as an enemy inside with international links.”
How Muslims are interpreting this can be seen in comments made by OIC secretary-general Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu in Iran on Monday.
FARS, an independent Iranian news agency, yesterday quoted Ihsanoglu as claiming the West had “hatched plots” to insult Islamic values and spark and spread hatred of Islam. He demanded collective action to confront the plots.
Amin Saikal, director of Australian National University’s Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies, acknowledges that many Muslim regimes are exploiting anti-Western sentiment for political purposes. “The UN resolution would strengthen the hand of authoritarian regimes and anti- Western feeling in those countries,” he says.
But he says this is a mirror image of the pressure Muslim minorities have faced in Europe and now the US, with recent controversy about building a mosque near Ground Zero, the former World Trade Centre site in New York.
“The right wing is really exploiting this for political purposes, even claiming Barack Obama is a closet Muslim. When these religious sentiments are whipped up for political purposes it’s a problem. They sort of mirror each other, Muslim countries and the US.”
Despite serious concerns, analysts believe the defamation of religions resolution is likely to pass the General Assembly, with a high number of abstentions.
Australia voted no at the final committee last week, but has equivocated in comparison with Britain, the US and New Zealand. A Foreign Affairs Department spokesman yesterday declined to guarantee that it would vote no in the General Assembly, saying the resolution might yet be amended.
The spokesman said the government considered UN resolutions on their merits, regardless of its Security Council bid. But unless the resolution was changed, Australia would “likely” continue to vote against it.
“The Australian government considers human rights are about protecting the rights of individuals, rather than the protection of institutions,” he said.
Tragic tales like that of Asia Bibi or Latif Masih are far from unusual. If the resolution passes they will become much more widespread, because many Islamic states and Islamist groups will treat it as tacit UN approval to jail, torture and kill Christians, Sabaean Mandeans, Baha’is, Ahmadiyyas and other minorities. Open Doors’s Nigel Rooke says: “Once you put an ideal above human beings, you open up serious abuses. Minority groups in these nations will face deeper persecution.”