U.N. Forbids Defaming Religion, Especially Islam

This article appeared in the Washington Times on February 2, 2009.
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On Inauguration Day, the Organization of the Islamic Conference, in a New York Times ad (“An Invitation to a New Partnership”), told “Dear President OBAMA” that Muslims “have compelling strategic and moral reasons to cooperate and peacefully co‐​exist with the United States in particular, and with the West in general.”

Many Muslims here and elsewhere want that partnership; but some, jihadists in the name of Islam, disagree violently. In its address to our new president, the Organization of the Islamic Conference (which has permanent status at the United Nations) made no mention of its own strategic skills that resulted, on Dec. 18, in the passage by the U.N. General Assembly of a nonbinding resolution (with strong advice to its members) that condemns “defamation of religion,” especially Islam.

In a 83‐​to‐​53 vote, with 42 abstentions, the U.N. General Assembly urges nations to provide “adequate protections” in their laws or constitutions against “acts of hatred, discrimination, intimidation and coercion resulting from defamation of religions and incitement to religious hatred in general.”

Only Islam and Muslims are specifically named in this resolution against religious defamation sponsored by Uganda — on behalf of the 57‐​member Organization of the Islamic Conference — with co‐​sponsors Belarus and Venezuela. In the opposition were the United States, a majority of European countries, Japan, India and a number of other nations.

Those voting in favor say they do not want to limit free speech but do intend to stop such expressions as the 2005 Danish cartoons disrespecting the Prophet Muhammad that ignited violent protests by Muslims around the world.

Among the opponents, including myself, of this U.N. move to have its members legislate, with penalties — against such very broadly designated “religious defamation” — is Floyd Abrams, this country’s leading protector of the First Amendment in the Supreme Court and in his writings. In his Dec. 9, lecture on Global Communications Issues at the United Nations itself in New York, he cited a recent study by the European Center for Law and Justice finding “that laws based on the concept of ‘defamation of religion’ actually help to create a climate of violence.”

“Violators of these laws, as applied in most Muslim countries, are subject to the death penalty,” Abrams continued. He cited from the study a 22‐​year‐​old Hindu in Pakistan “was beaten to death by co‐​workers at a factory for allegedly committing the crime of blasphemy, which is a crime punishable by death in the country.” The three workers were “charged not with murder but with ‘failure to inform the police that blasphemy was under way.’ ”

Also in an article, The Freedom to Criticize by Floyd Abrams (The American Jewish Congress Monthly, 2008), he emphasizes, and I fully agree, that the effect of what the United Nations voted for on Dec. 18 “would be just as dangerous if this did not (originally) come from the Islamic states, but came from any other group of states representing or purporting to speak for any other religion.”

Another of America’s leading First Amendment lawyers, Marc Stern, co‐​executive director of the American Jewish Congress, makes a crucial point that if this approach to “defamation of religion” were to become a crime under international law (under the impetus of the U.N. resolution): “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, for example, as Reuters reported last June 4 (“Jordan Summons Danish Cartoonist on Blasphemy Charges”), that country’s prosecutor, Hassan Abdullat, subpoenaed “11 Danes for drawing and reprinting” cartoons that offend Islam. The Danes were charged — in Jordan — for “threatening the national peace.”

Under Jordanian law, Reuters reported, “reproducing images of the Prophet Muhammad inside — or even outside the country — is illegal under the Jordanian Justice Act.”

One of the Danes summoned to Jordan was Kurt Westergaard, who, for years, has been subject to death threats for his cartoon, among others, of the Prophet Muhammad wearing a turban in the shape of a bomb.

When the riots and deaths following those Danish cartoons were reported in American newspapers, none of the offending cartoons were published accompanying the stories in The New York Times, the Washington Post and other major dailies, except the Philadelphia Inquirer and the New York Sun. But, at the Village Voice, where I then had a column, I ran the story, with the cartoon of Prophet Muhammad wearing the bomb‐​shaped turban.

I was damned if I’d be intimidated for doing my job as a reporter. For a couple of weeks, I was more vigilant than usual walking the streets, but I’m still here. What most stays in my mind is that long before the Dec. 18, 2008, resolution on defamation of religions, so much of the American free press refused to run even one of the cartoons at the core of the story, and hardly anything about the United Nations’ Dec. 18 resolution.

Did they not want to offend certain readers? Were they afraid? If the U.N. resolution became international law, the First Amendment would still protect opponents here, but think of the bloody impact on “defamers” around the world.

Nat Hentoff

Nat Hentoff is a nationally renowned authority on the First Amendment and the Bill of Rights. He is a member of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, and the libertarian Cato Institute, where he is a senior fellow.