.- Muslim countries may seek a United Nations resolution that would brand criticism of Islam and other religions as âhate speech,â a top U.S. religious freedom official is warning.
Earlier this year, Islamic nations lost their most recent bid to pass a resolution against âdefamationâ or âvilificationâ 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.
âMy 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 â that is to say, by pushing the 'hate speech' issue,â he told CNA.
The Islamic conference was lobbying the U.N. for what Leo called a âglobal blasphemy law,â which would have condemned âdefamation of religionsâ and urged member states to pass laws against it.
Although the measure failed, Leo said Islamic states may have better luck using broader âhate speechâ language that some Western countries already accept.
The Islamic states' new approach, he believes, will be âto move away from the 'defamation of religions' frameworkâ they have relied on in the past, and move toward âa broader, more amorphous 'hate speech' framework.â
Many European nations already have laws against âhate speechâ and a U.N. international covenant on civil and political rights also encourages prohibitions against it.
Leo said the Islamic nationsâ 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 âwhich talked about governments taking appropriate actions against 'hostility' as well as incitement to violenceâ on religious grounds.
Leo worries that the language of that measure, adopted in 2009 without a vote, âopens the doorâ to new laws that would make it a crime to criticize the behavior of religious believers.
âThe problem is, 'hostility' could arguably encompass a much broader category of speech and conduct,â Leo said. âThe U.S.-Egypt resolution said that countries should take actions to prevent incitement, hostility, or discrimination. Now, what is 'hostility'? We don't know.â
A U.N. resolution against religious âhate speechâ or âhostilityâ 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 â 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 âdefamation of religions.â
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 âdefamationâ or âvilificationâ of religions.
Instead, the U.N.âs Human Rights Council adopted a resolution condemning religious intolerance.
Leo called the rejection of this year's anti-âdefamationâ proposal âgood news.â
He said the resolution against religious intolerance made it clear that âyou shouldn't have laws that criminalize anything other than incitement to violent acts.â
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 ârecycledâ from earlier efforts to pass a global blasphemy law.
This language, she told CNA, remains âvery problematic,â as in the case of phrases like âincitement to hatred.â Such a language, McGuire said âcould be interpreted quite widelyâ to suppress legitimate criticism.
In one passage of the new resolution, the council âurges states to take effective measures â¦ to address and combatâ incidents of âreligious intolerance, discrimination and related violence.â However, another portion of the same provision seems to suggest further government measures against âincitement to discriminationâ or âhostility.â
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.
âIncitement to violence is something that's already condemned in international law,â she said. âBut 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.â
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 âdoes not replace the (Islamic conferenceâs) earlier resolutions on combating defamation of religions, which â¦ continue to remain valid.â