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UN could move to target criticism of Islam as 'hate speech'
Leonard A. Leo
Leonard A. Leo
By Benjamin Mann

.- Muslim countries may seek a United Nations resolution that would brand criticism of Islam and other religions as “hate speech,” a top U.S. religious freedom official is warning.

Earlier this year, Islamic nations lost their most recent bid to pass a resolution against “defamation” or “vilification” of religions in the U.N. Human Rights Council. Now they appear to be pursing a new tactic, said Leonard Leo, a presidential appointee who chairs the bipartisan U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

“My concern is that the Organization of the Islamic Conference will now try to get 'defamation of religions' and 'blasphemy' resolutions passed through the back door – that is to say, by pushing the 'hate speech' issue,” he told CNA.

The Islamic conference was lobbying the U.N. for what Leo called a “global blasphemy law,” which would have condemned “defamation of religions” and urged member states to pass laws against it.

Although the measure failed, Leo said Islamic states may have better luck using broader “hate speech” language that some Western countries already accept.

The Islamic states' new approach, he believes, will be “to move away from the 'defamation of religions' framework” they have relied on in the past, and move toward “a broader, more amorphous 'hate speech' framework.”

Many European nations already have laws against “hate speech” and a U.N. international covenant on civil and political rights also encourages prohibitions against it.

Leo said the Islamic nations’ shift in strategy may build on a vaguely-worded 2009 resolution that Egypt and the United States co-sponsored in the U.N. Human Rights Council.

Both countries endorsed a statement “which talked about governments taking appropriate actions against 'hostility' as well as incitement to violence” on religious grounds.

Leo worries that the language of that measure, adopted in 2009 without a vote, “opens the door” to new laws that would make it a crime to criticize the behavior of religious believers.

“The problem is, 'hostility' could arguably encompass a much broader category of speech and conduct,” Leo said. “The U.S.-Egypt resolution said that countries should take actions to prevent incitement, hostility, or discrimination. Now, what is 'hostility'? We don't know.”

A U.N. resolution against religious “hate speech” or “hostility” would not bind member states to outlaw these kinds of expression.

The real problem, said Leo, is that such a resolution would lend the appearance of international legitimacy to existing laws outlawing religious criticism – such as those in Pakistan, Indonesia, Iran, and many other Muslim-run states. It would also signal international acceptance of new laws that would have similar effects.

Since 1999, U.N. human rights subgroups have passed resolutions every year that incorporated the Islamic states' preferred language against “defamation of religions.”

But these proposals declined in popularity, especially after two opponents of Pakistan's blasphemy law were murdered by Islamic extremists in 2011.

This year, for the first time since 1999, there was no U.N. resolution urging governments to repress either “defamation” or “vilification” of religions.

Instead, the U.N.’s Human Rights Council adopted a resolution condemning religious intolerance.

Leo called the rejection of this year's anti-“defamation” proposal “good news.”

He said the resolution against religious intolerance made it clear that “you shouldn't have laws that criminalize anything other than incitement to violent acts.”

Other international observers are less confident about this latest U.N. action.

Ashley McGuire, program director of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, said the new resolution includes language “recycled” from earlier efforts to pass a global blasphemy law.

This language, she told CNA, remains “very problematic,” as in the case of phrases like “incitement to hatred.” Such a language, McGuire said “could be interpreted quite widely” to suppress legitimate criticism.

In one passage of the new resolution, the council “urges states to take effective measures … to address and combat” incidents of “religious intolerance, discrimination and related violence.” However, another portion of the same provision seems to suggest further government measures against “incitement to discrimination” or “hostility.”

McGuire believes the new resolution's central flaw is its failure to distinguish between speech that some may find offensive or provocative, and speech that constitutes an incitement to violence against members of a religion.

“Incitement to violence is something that's already condemned in international law,” she said. “But to say things that are religious in nature, and provocative, is an entirely different thing. What continues to be the problem is the conflation of the two.”

McGuire also noted that the new resolution's failure to condemn blasphemy laws would allow Islamic states to continue claiming a U.N. mandate for such measures.

Zamir Akram, Pakistan's ambassador to the Organization of the Islamic Conference, said the new resolution “does not replace the (Islamic conference’s) earlier resolutions on combating defamation of religions, which … continue to remain valid.”

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