WASHINGTON-Despite American objections, the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), a confederation of 56 Islamic nations, has been pushing "defamation of religion" resolutions in the UN for years. But the United States, along with Egypt, has put forward a resolution against religious hatred to divert the defamation efforts and also to avoid diplomatic "isolation."
The OIC's defamation resolutions, which some consider to be thinly veiled blasphemy laws, condemn "gratuitously offensive attacks" on religions, but the only religion specifically mentioned in the resolutions is Islam. The OIC is now pushing beyond the resolutions-which aren't legally binding-to set up a legal framework that would address defamations.
The United States, instead of defying the OIC, has sought to thread the needle on the issue by joining Egypt in sponsoring a resolution that discourages incitement to religious hatred-despite the fact that the United States objects to a similar UN resolution because its legal ban of incitement conflicts with the U.S. Constitution's free-speech protections.
Leonard Leo, chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), said at a recent U.S. House hearing that he was concerned that the incitement language would be a "Trojan horse" for defamation of religion efforts.
The U.S. State Department's Joseph Cassidy from the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, tried to address the concerns of religious freedom advocates as well as those of Republican congressmen Frank Wolf of Virginia, Trent Franks of Arizona, and Joseph Cao of Louisiana, who held the hearing on the matter.
"We believe it is a model of not only how to deal responsibly with these issues, but also a proactive U.S. diplomacy that breaks down division between different regional blocks and avoids U.S. isolation," Cassidy said. Egypt is part of the OIC, so having the country sign onto the resolution is a way for the United States to engage an Islamic country without agreeing to the defamation resolutions.
"We really wanted to seize the issue back from the folks who were running this and who were defeating us over and over again," Cassidy said, acknowledging, "There are things regarding Egyptian conduct domestically that are deeply troubling."
Egypt has enforced its own defamation laws-blogger Kareem Amer has been imprisoned in the country since 2007 on religious defamation charges, an imprisonment that a UN study group called "arbitrary."
"It was our hope that by having Egypt so visibly identified with a freedom of expression resolution, that we would actually provide support to domestic groups within Egypt," Cassidy said.
He acknowledged that such a resolution requires extra circumspection: "Government efforts to regulate the content of speech, even hateful speech open the door to potential abuse."
An ad hoc UN committee meeting in Geneva last week and this week has been discussing a legal framework for addressing defamation of religions beyond the non-binding resolutions.
The resolutions, which are put forward each year, attract less and less support. In the December 2008 UN General Assembly, the no votes and abstentions on the question outnumbered the yes votes, but the resolution still passed. Cassidy said the United States is having a more and more difficult time finding "no" votes for the resolutions, and that's why they took up the new strategy of a religious discrimination resolution. But others wondered why the United States would change tactics when the defamation resolutions are losing support. Cassidy himself admitted that these types of resolutions in general don't have "much standing" or a "long shelf life."
"National or international laws purporting to ban criticism or 'defamation' of religions are not the solution to the very real problems of religious intolerance and discrimination," USCIRF's Leo said. "In fact, such prohibitions do more harm than good, as evidenced by the human rights abuses perpetrated under them in countries such as Pakistan."
The OIC will introduce another defamation of religion resolution in the near future for the UN General Assembly's consideration.