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Defamation of religions

September 29, 2012

THE recent tragic events surrounding the profane and provocative video insulting Islam’s Prophet (PBUH) have again revived tensions between the Islamic world and America and revealed the wide cultural and political gulf between them.

This gulf was evident from the statement made at the UN General Assembly by the US president on Sept 25 and the response the next day from the presidents of Egypt, Yemen, Pakistan and Iran.

President Obama argued for absolute freedom of expression, asserting that he defended this right even for those who criticised him. He described the video as “disgusting” but condemned the violent reactions to it in the Muslim world especially the murder of the US ambassador in Libya. Obama opined that restraints on freedom of expression result in repression, particularly against minorities.

Rejecting these premises, President Morsi said: “Egypt respects freedom of expression … that is not used to incite hatred against anyone. …Insults against the Prophet of Islam … are not acceptable. We will not allow anyone to do this by word or deed.”

President Zardari expressed “strongest condemnation for acts of incitement of hate against the faith of billions of Muslims … and our beloved Prophet Muhammad (PBUH)”. He called for criminalising such insults against religions.

In fact, 12 years ago, Pakistan, as chair of the Islamic (OIC) Group on human rights in Geneva, proposed a resolution in the Human Rights Commission entitled ‘Defamation of Islam’. It called for adoption of laws to prohibit insults against Islam and other religions and beliefs, just as denial of the Holocaust had been criminalised by several European countries. In negotiations with the West, the proposal’s title was amended to ‘Defamation of Religions’. It was adopted by a comfortable majority despite abstentions by several Western countries including the US.

As for almost all Muslim causes, this forceful move against insults to Islam suffered a severe setback because of the 9/11 attacks and the launch of the ‘war on terror’ whose targets were Al Qaeda, the Taliban and, soon, almost all militant Muslim groups.

Nevertheless, Pakistan, which still holds the OIC leadership in Geneva, has persisted in annually proposing and securing adoption of the resolution on Defamation of Religions in the Human Rights Council.

Three years ago, the US initiated a determined diplomatic campaign to prevent the adoption of this annual resolution. Its principal argument, apart from freedom of expression, was that religions cannot be defamed in legal terms. Under US pressure, support for the OIC resolution began to dwindle over the past few years — even within the OIC group. In 2010, Pakistan had to work overtime in Geneva to ensure a simple majority. Following the latest provocations — the US video and the French cartoons — support for the effort to criminalise ‘defamation’ of religions may secure renewed and wider support in the UN. To fast-track the process, the proposal to criminalise insults against Islam and other religions could be submitted for a legally binding decision by the UN Security Council. Pakistan is currently a non-permanent member of the Council. And, the Security Council has jurisdiction since, as President Zardari pointed out, such religious provocations “destroy the peace” and “endanger world security by misusing freedom of expression”. Although such a proposal may be vetoed by the Western permanent members in the Security Council, it will serve to underline the serious intent of the Muslim world and can generate some restraints in the West against anti-Islamic provocations.

Obviously, while seeking this objective, Muslim governments will need to ensure an equal degree of probity and respect towards other religions and beliefs within their own societies. Pakistan and several other Muslim countries have laws prohibiting incitement to religious hatred. Thus, the growing incidents of religious and sectarian discrimination and violence in Muslim countries, especially in Pakistan, are not only un-Islamic, they are also illegal. The destruction of one’s own property and lives in response to alien insults is also pretty senseless. Such acts reinforce the portrayal of Muslims as innately violent.

And, they erode the credibility of the case for criminalising the insults to Islam in non-Muslim countries.

It is depressing also that the US and its Western friends fail to understand or admit the root causes of Muslim anger. This is the consequence of the history of American policies which most Muslims find offensive: its pro-Israel positions in the Middle East, Mossadeq’s ouster, the blind eye to Kashmir, military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, post-9/11 discrimination against Muslims. This is self-evident to common people in the Muslim world; but it is not accepted by American policymakers and not understood by the general public.

Nor is there a willingness in Washington to admit past mistakes and rectify and rebalance failed policies. Obama’s weak effort in Cairo to appear even-handed towards the Palestinians was slapped down by Netanyahu, displaying Israel’s deep political influence in the US. There has been no US apology for the invasion of Iraq on false pretences; nor for Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo, and no change in continuing to fight the futile war in Afghanistan which has also destabilised and alienated Pakistan.

It is in these circumstances that the narrative of Islamic extremists still has resonance in Muslim countries and the popularity of those who confront the US is rising.

The reaction in Washington to the killing of its ambassador in Libya and the violence in Cairo seemed to indicate a blithe belief that its “support” to the democracy movements in the Arab Spring would be sufficient to win it the goodwill and compliance of the new, democratically elected governments. What it did not recognise perhaps is that these elected governments closely reflect the composition, culture and sentiments of the majority of their peoples. They are thus religiously conservative, nationalist and, so far, psychologically independent of US power.

Under the circumstances, no one can discount the future spiral of fresh tensions between the West and the Muslim world. Unless conscious preventive measures are adopted, there could be new provocations in the West and further violent reactions in the Islamic countries.

What is slightly heartening is that both the recent anti-Islam insults in the US and France and the violent reactions to these in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Pakistan and elsewhere were the work of fringe groups, not mainstream political parties. If governments on both sides of the cultural and political divide can adopt responsible policies to contain provocations and violent reactions on religious issues, a serious dialogue could be undertaken on how best to bridge the deep divide between Islam and the West and address the root causes of today’s ‘clash of cultures’.

The writer is a former Pakistan ambassador to the UN.