Policing belief

The Freedom House report on blasphemy laws underlines the distinction between blasphemy and incitement.

There is an important distinction in international law between blasphemy—meaning critical, insulting, or offensive expression against religious doctrines, figures, and deities—and incitement—meaning expression that explicitly encourages and calls for hostility and violence. Of the two, only the latter appears to fit the limited circumstances in which restrictions on freedom of expression are considered acceptable.

It’s easy to understand why the two get blended together, because hatred of a set of ideas can lead to hatred of people who espouse them. This is obvious to me with regard to people like Glen Beck; to the pope’s ravings about atheism; to sexist rants about feminism. In that sense, I can understand at least in principle the worry that criticism of Islam may lead to hatred of Islam’s followers. But I also realize that neither Glen Beck nor the pope nor sexists can be silenced on those grounds. They can be disputed, but not silenced. So it is with religions.
As the special rapporteurs on freedom of religion and belief and on contemporary forms of racism pointed out in a joint annual report to the Human Rights Council in 2006, “the right to freedom of expression can legitimately be restricted for advocacy that incites to acts of violence or discrimination against individuals on the basis of their religion. Defamation of religions may offend people and hurt their religious feelings but it does not necessarily or at least directly result in a violation of their rights, including their right to freedom of religion.”
And for that reason, the risk has to be tolerated. The alternative is an unacceptable level of policing of discussion and belief.
UN member states from the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) and the African group—particularly Egypt, Algeria, and Pakistan—have been leading an initiative to incorporate a prohibition on defamation of religions into the international human rights framework. Pakistan, acting on behalf of the OIC, introduced the first resolution on this issue at the Commission on Human Rights in 1999, and similar resolutions have been passed each year since. The 2009 version of the resolution, introduced in the Human Rights Council, explicitly linked defamation of religions with states’ obligations under Article 20(2) of the ICCPR to legally prohibit “incitement to hatred.” The move represented an attempt to expand existing international norms on incitement.
The move goes beyond simply seeing how criticism of a religion can lead to hatred, to assuming that it does. That step is one step too many.
[An international blasphemy law] would insert into the international human rights framework a concept that essentially turns human rights upside down, restricting the speech and actions of men and women for the sake of disembodied ideas as such, and replacing equality and the rule of law with deference to religious orthodoxy and subjective feelings of outrage. An internal contradiction of this magnitude would cripple international human rights law as a whole and leave little recourse to victims of persecution around the world.
Let’s not replace equality and the rule of law with deference to religious orthodoxy and subjective feelings of outrage.

15 Responses to “Policing belief”