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Australian philosopher, literary critic, and professional writer. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

The devil is in the detail

In my previous post, I posted the full text of the non-binding resolution on defamation of religion, passed by the UN General Assembly late last year. We need to be able to consult the full text because the devil is in the detail. Much of the discussion on the internet seems to make assumptions about what it might say, rather than what it actually does say. For a more authoritative publication of the text, go here, where you can find it with difficulty.

It should be pointed out that much of the text is innocuous or even commendable. E.g., it deplores literal (physical) violence, or incitement to violence, against people on the ground of religion. There are also commendable statements about the importance of education to both boys and girls, and much other material that is arguably good stuff for the UN to be saying.

But to see how sweeping and potentially draconian it is in restricting free speech, you need to dig into the detail and try to work out what it would mean in practice.

The main purpose seems to be to stop "defamation of religion" which seems to include claims that something in Islam encourages violence and terrorism. So, Fitna would seem to be a classic case of "defamation of religion". But there are other phrases that would seem to require prevention of certain kinds of blasphemy - e.g. the production of images on the internet desecrating religious symbols seems to be condemned by this resolution.

Because it's written in UN-style gobbledegook, it's very difficult to pin down what it would mean in practice, i.e. exactly what laws it would require nations to pass if the same wording actually became a basis for a UN Convention, and if various nations then signed it. That vagueness is itself cause for concern. But the aim does seem to be primarily to stop people saying highly critical things about Islam.

I don't know that anything in such a book as Richard Dawkins The God Delusion would necessarily come under "defamation of religion", although the comparison with other forms of delusion might go close. But anyway, large tracts of Sam Harris's The End of Faith would probably qualify. Likewise the anti-Muslim views of someone like Mark Steyn. It is possible that a great deal of robust criticism or satire of doctrines, religious institutions, holy books, and cultures could end up being prohibited if this resolution were given a higher status than just a non-binding resolution of the Assembly.

I'd be interested in anyone else's interpretations of how it would work if it actually became international law, based on a close reading of the actual text.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

"But the aim does seem to be primarily to stop people saying highly critical things about Islam."

This would be the final nail in the proverbial coffin for Islam's search for modernity, pluralism, secularism and democracy. Unable to be criticized from within or from the outer it has absolutely no chance of evolving from where it stands today.
I was just discussing Abdul Karim Soroush on another thread and how and what he thinks Muslims can take from the Christian Reformation in regard to reforming Islam. Soroush is at pains to convince his fellow Muslims of the need to face modernity with what he calls a spirit of "active accommodation, imbued or informed with criticism."
Islamic countries are intent on getting this passed through the UN as they're convinced this is for the good of Muslims. They couldn't be anymore further from the truth.
The attack on freedom of speech and what you write does not translate to individual thought. If people still think these things and are further frustrated due to not being allowed to express them. I see a whole lot more anger and violence being committed against those who wish to silence their critics.

Sorry Russell, I tried to read it. I need to lay down for a while and clear my head. Political correctness UN style, is not just an attack on democratic principles, it's an attack on the human mind.

Habibi

Anonymous said...

The next UN platform is the 'Racism Conference' in Geneva to push for defamation of religion laws. The US just joined Canada in boycotting the event.

Habibi

Elephant said...

Because it's written in UN-style gobbledegook, it's very difficult to pin down what it would mean in practice, i.e. exactly what laws it would require nations to pass if the same wording actually became a basis for a UN Convention, and if various nations then signed it. That vagueness is itself cause for concern. But the aim does seem to be primarily to stop people saying highly critical things about Islam.


That's the point, isn't it? If you're some middle eastern thug, it's a mandate to impose your own ideology. If you're a westerner, it's a source of endless arguments about "breaches of international law", although most of the protagonists couldn't distinguish an international treaty from a cheese sandwich.

To the extent that it is clear, it seems to me that article 8 prohibits making connections between Islam and terrorism, article 9 proscribes the "Mohammed cartoons", and article 10 says that governments can shut down free speech if they think there might be a riot. And that's a fairly conservative interpretation.

This is scary stuff.