On 26 March 2009, the UN's Human Rights Council resolved to adopt a proposal drafted by Pakistan condemning so-called "defamation of religion" and calling for nations to enact new laws against attacks on religious beliefs, organisations, and symbols.
The resolution was adopted by a majority of 23 in favour, with 11 opposed and 13 abstentions. Similar resolutions have been passed for several years by both the Human Rights Council and the UN General Assembly. They are sponsored by members of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC), but typically gain support from many developing nations as well as others outside of the Western democracies, such as Russia and China.
The draft text prepared by Pakistan can be found on the UN Watch site.
Among other things, the resolution "Deplores the use of the print, audio-visual and electronic media, including the Internet, and any other means to incite acts of violence, xenophobia or related intolerance and discrimination towards any religion, as well as targeting of religious symbols and venerated persons", so my recent republication of a satirical cartoon of the pope in the London Times, clearly makes me guilty of defamation of religion.
Throughout the document, "defamation of religion" is closely associated with hate crimes. Absurdly, the resolution "Stress[es] that defamation of religions is a serious affront to human dignity leading to restriction on the freedom of religion of their adherents and incitement to religious hatred and violence". Let's try to get our heads around that idea: in the name of freedom of religion, of all things, our legal right to subject various religions, and their activities, to criticism is supposed to be taken away from us. Right, gotcha. George Orwell, where are you when we need you?
The resolution is in broad enough terms to condemn almost any satire or criticism of religious beliefs, organisations, activities, or leaders, and it obviously represents a fundamental attack on freedom of speech. The persistence of religion - not to mention its continued power and influence - merits scrutiny, and it is in the public interest that religion not be placed beyond discussion. This includes harsh criticism and satire. I particularly include Islam, which is invariably singled out by UN resolutions as a religion that must be protected from criticism of any kind.
Such resolutions are obtained cheaply. Both the General Assembly and the Human Rights Council are well-stocked with countries that delight in provoking the Western democracies and undermining Western ideas of individual freedom. Those countries are not limited to those making up the OIC. In addition, many others are simply unwilling to take sides, for whatever mix of reasons. Accordingly, they abstain - with the result that the Western nations are invariably outvoted, as in this latest debacle. While nations such as the US, Australia, and the European democracies cannot be forced to enact legislation that protects religion from criticism and satire, such resolutions strengthen the hands of regimes that persecute journalists and others who criticise religion (most notably any who dare criticise Islam). In short, these resolutions give theocrats, demagogues, and tin-pot dictators the high moral ground.
They also strengthen the hands of illiberal academics, lawyers, government officials, and others in Western nations, who place a low priority on freedom of speech and continually push for restrictive laws in the name of social harmony. There is no shortage of Western intellectuals who see the whole idea of freedom of speech as an outdated relic of the much-maligned Enlightenment. According to their way of thinking, the presumption of free speech should be replaced by active government control of what we can say and what we should think - all in the interests of protecting social harmony and shielding the sensibilities of people from religious (especially Muslim) backgrounds.
This highly illiberal position has become almost the dominant paradigm within legal academia and in much of the intellectual culture of the West. Indeed, there is an unstated taboo on criticising it or the fifth columnists for the Taliban who advocate it. No one, it seems, wants to look like a political dinosaur who still defends Enlightenment thought or the views of John Stuart Mill ... or perhaps to look like something worse, such as a xenophobe or a racist.
It's about time for those of us who still consider free speech to be important and relevant to do far more to contest the issue within Western intellectual culture. We'll need to struggle, and we'll suffer slurs on our reputations, but someone has to defend freedom of speech before it's too late.
Meanwhile, Udo Schuklenk observes that our forthcoming book, 50 Voices of Disbelief, might find itself in an official UN Human Rights "report" as defaming religious people, their symbols, etc. But Udo adds that our book would find itself in good company, such as Voltaire's Candide; as he says this would actually be "Kinda cool".