American Atheists reports: A key U.S. ally in the "war on terror" is one of two nations leading a group of Islamic countries proposing a global ban on "blasphemy."
Associated Press has obtained documents indicating that Pakistan and Algeria are spear heading a campaign to protect religious symbols and beliefs from mockery -- "essentially a ban on blasphemy that would put them on a collision course with free speech laws in the West."
Reporter Frank Jordans of AP observed: "If ratified in countries that enshrine freedom of expression as a fundamental right, such a treaty would require them to limit free speech if it risks seriously offending religious believers." He added, "The process, though, will take years and no showdown is imminent."
The proposed resolution has been presented to the United Nations several times in recent years at the behest of the Organization of the Islamic Conference which represents 56 predominantly Muslim nations. Islamic concerns over blasphemy have been growing. When Salman Rushdie's novel "The Satanic Verses" was published, for instance, India banned the book as an affront to Islam. Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran then issued his notorious "fatwa" or death sentence; and throughout the world, Islamists organized street demonstrations, riots and even bombings while demanding that governments prohibit the printing or distribution of Rushdie's novel.
In England and several other nations, select Christian, Muslim and even some Jewish leaders condemned the work as an "insult" to religious faith.
Four years ago, the publication of cartoons in the Danish press with an unflattering portrayal of Mohamed led to similar riots and the call for government action to enforce or craft strict anti-blasphemy statutes. And earlier this year, the OIC and its allies introduced a non-binding blasphemy resolution identical to the earlier version. That measure is now slated to be presented at the U.N. General Assembly in December.
Several factors may be fueling the Islamist campaign to rein-in "offensive" and anti-religious expressions. The growth of the Internet and other forms of communications technology has rendered traditional political borders less cohesive. So has the increase in international travel and commerce, along with greater interpersonal contact between diverse "civil society"
groups. Religious movements have benefited from this process as well, though. Islamic fundamentalists often cite the aggressive proselytizing of Christian missionary organizations which many in the Middle East view as a coordinated "attack" on Muslim cultural, religious and political institutions.
Islamists have found some common cause with other religious movements anxious at the spread of values they see as deleterious to faith --everything from consumerism, gender empowerment for women and gays, and secularism in general. Christian evangelicals have denounced American culture for its tendency to "privatize" religion, while at the same time demanding greater access to nations in the Third World -- including Muslim-dominated Southeast Asia and the Middle East -- in order to carry out "the Great Commission" and spread Christianity. Islamic activists have a similar agenda, calling for everything from jihad to the resurrection of an Islamic caliphate into Europe and even the United States. In Britain, for instance, Muslim leaders have expressed outrage at efforts to prevent the building of mosques and religious schools, and are calling for the institution of Sha'ria or religious law.
Pakistan in the Middle?
Pakistan has some of the most severe anti-blasphemy laws in the world. The government must also walk a tightrope between its influential military complex (armed with nuclear weapons, "the Islamic Bomb"), pressure from the United States to cooperate in efforts to suppress the Taliban, and a growing Islamic fundamentalist movement within its own borders. Ironically, a broad coalition of human rights groups, Christians and Muslim legal experts have become increasingly vocal in speaking out against any existing and proposed blasphemy statutes in Pakistan, charging that the measures actually contribute to religious tensions and violence. A report from Asia News last week noted: A popular front is emerging in the country which promises to bring the battle (against blasphemy measures) of laws that provide for life imprisonment or the death penalty for those who profane the Koran, or defame the name of the prophet Muhammed..."
One group calling for prohibition of blasphemy laws is the secular civil society movement Peoples Resistance. It found an unlikely ally in the Pakistan Christian Congress; and in late October, the two organizations held meetings and passed resolutions declaring blasphemy statutes "unjust, unconstitutional and an instrument in hands of extremists to target vulnerable religious minorities."
Feminist and gay liberation groups are also calling for action to abolish the blasphemy statutes; their concerns are being echoed by a number of prominent Pakistani government leaders an politicians who are demanding that the law be repealed. Women's rights activist Hilda Saeed told Asian News, "Pakistan is one of the countries where protection of minorities is respected." Other critics note that the blasphemy statutes were introduced in 1986 under the reign of military dictator Muhammed Zia Al-Haq, and are incompatible with a democratic society.
The blasphemy issue has also become a tool in the hands of religious zealots who cite the need for such a law while carrying out acts of violence against their theological and political opponents..
Ireland -- A Disgrace!
While blasphemy statutes are currently associated with intolerant, authoritarian Muslim governments, support for such measures in the West often takes the form of calls to prohibit "hate speech" and defamatory remarks directed against a specific faith or religion in general.
That rationale worked in Ireland -- for years a Mecca for cutting edge artists, writers and other creative talent --which recently enacted a blasphemy law that was signed by President Mary McAleese in July. It provides stiff fines for publications of utterances that violate the "Defamation Bill." Although it allows for "reasonable" exemptions, critics say that the measure is a slippery slope on the road to banning any criticism or "hurtful" remarks concerning religious beliefs. Procedural glitches have stalled enforcement of the statute, which is now expected to go into effect in January, 2010.
At the United Nations, observers who monitor the effort to enact blasphemy controls say that by continually introducing proposals, the OIC is simply counting on gradually accumulating support that, it hopes,will overwhelm any resistance. The prospect of violence over the next "offensive" cartoon, play, book or remark will also give added voice to blasphemy statute proponents. There is,finally,the on-going confrontation of values -- Enlightenment-era tolerance and civil liberties pitted against calls for religious (Sha'ria) law and "protection" for assorted religious groups. Ironically, as secularism spreads and contributes to the growth of authentic civil society groups, the religious become more anxious that their values are "under stack." In the meantime, it is imperative that defenders of free thought and free expression speak out vocally against any national or international measures like the OIC proposals which, under the guise of "protecting" faith-based groups and ideas, violate human rights, prevent questioning of religion, and provide the faithful a "free pass" from any criticism or doubt.