It is a dark irony that the printing press – the nifty device that made religion available to the masses – is often in the crosshairs of the world’s most militant believers. Perhaps this isn’t alarming at all, since the right to think what one will and speak as one pleases is at odds with the core dogmas of religion. And what, pray tell, are these core dogmas? First, religious truths can be neither criticized nor defamed. Second, the attempt to criticize or defame those truths is a sin of unparalleled proportion, an abomination, as it were.
If you have any doubt that these core dogmas are alive and kicking, consider this: A diverse yet similarly cantankerous and commonly-minded group of Muslims, grouped under the umbrella of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, are now demanding that Islam be shielded from criticism. In July of 2008 the Conference formally asked the United Nations to recognize that “Islamophobia” is a real threat affecting the lives of well-meaning, peaceful Muslims. According to the Conference, not only are Muslims often subject to stereotyping and discriminatory treatment, they must also endure the most insulting, offensive and contemptuous treatment from others, since the world is quite eager to “defile” and “denigrate” the sacred symbols of Islam. Islam is itself under attack, a vicious and baseless siege that will only end if the United Nations steps in to level the playing field.
If Islam is “under attack,” is that a bad thing? The United Nations seems to think so, and appears keen to intervene, as it recently renewed a non-binding resolution (62/154) entitled Combating defamation of religions. This resolution has a number of lovely instances of non-sense on stilts, but focus your attention, dear friends, on the following gems:
(The U.N.) Expresses its deep concern that Islam is frequently and wrongly associated with human rights violations and terrorism. (5)
(The U.N.) Stresses the need to effectively combat defamation of all religions and incitement to religious hatred, against Islam and Muslims in particular. (9)
Paragraph 5 is quite entertaining, if you put just a bit of pressure on it. Is the problem that Islam is sometimes or even often correctly associated with human rights violations and terrorism, but in absolute terms “frequently” incorrectly associated with human rights violations and terrorism without sufficient grounds? Or is the problem that in relative terms, people tend to incorrectly associate Islam with human rights violations and terrorism? My sense is that the latter cannot be correct. But the real issue isn’t the relative proportion of correct to incorrect associations between Islam, on the one hand, and human rights violations and terrorism, on the other. The real bugbear is whether the U.N. should spend its valuable time trying to malign a practice – i.e., the criticism of Islam – that in a non-trivial number of instances gets the association between Islam and the underlying problems exactly right.
As for paragraph 9, well, consider the following. First, this paragraph conflates defamation and incitement to hatred, two very different things. Defamation is a legal concept, roughly meaning the false or unjustified injury of the good reputation of another, whereas incitement refers to an act or series of acts that are designed to bring about a certain outcome, in this case hatred. In conflating these concepts, Resolution 62/154 invites one to conclude that defamatory speech inevitably leads to or is equivalent to incitement to hatred. Given all the bright lights working at the U.N., it’s a bit shocking that this kind of sloppy drafting actually made it into an official resolution. Then again, maybe such tomfoolery has become commonplace at the United Nations. After all, Ban Ki-moon is at the helm, and he’s the fella that condemned Geert Wilders’ fiercely critical documentary on Islam, arguing, though of course not in so many words, that free expression is not nearly as important as appeasing the Islamic community. Ban Ki-moon, of course, pays no mind to the fact that in the Netherlands, where Wilders resides, the Islamic community is the instigator of violence, not its victim. But I digress.
Second, the U.N. should not be concerning itself with reducing, or encouraging the world community to reduce, instances of religious defamation.** Imagine the response of the global community if the U.N. decided to attempt to silence journalists or public intellectuals who asserted a causal connection between the Catholic Church’s position on celibacy and the rate of pedophilia and sexual abuse among the clergy. You can tick all the boxes here: (i) speech, tick; (ii) directed toward members of a discrete and easily identifiable religious group, tick; (iii) designed to humiliate, degrade and/or morally condemn those folks, tick; and (iv) that is capable of making third parties angry at members of that religious group, tick. Preposterous, you might say, and indeed you should say. Equally absurd is the U.N.’s attempt to take the same steps to prevent critics of Islam from speaking their minds.
It is easy to envision what the Conference wants the world to be: A place where Islam sits atop a privileged perch, immune from criticism of all varieties, incisive and superficial alike. This is quite a rich request, coming from representatives of a religion whose practitioners (1) mandate second class citizenship for women, (2) prescribe death as a penalty for adultery, (3) often (but not always) demonize Jewish people, and (4) regard the Koran as the ultimate authority on any political, social or moral question (without regard to the plausibility of the Koran’s position on the question at hand). “Pay no attention to the sharp, deadly sceptre my confederate is about to pierce you with, but instead listen to my kind and gentle entreaties,” the Conference seems to say.
The problem with such a world is that it immunizes the thoughts, beliefs and practices of Muslims simply because they’re Muslims. Can we possibly imagine a darker future for the freedom of thought and speech than this? Though we may empathize with Muslims who are peaceful and progressive, it does not follow that the values of free speech and open debate should take a backseat to the illiberal, anti-speech designs of the Organization of the Islamic Conference. And that is precisely why there can be no privileged perch, no escape for Islam, or any other religious tradition, that would like nothing more than to have its fantastic claims – supernatural, moral, or otherwise – exempted from serious consideration and criticism.
** This claim is controversial. Some might say that the U.N. should have a role in addressing forms of religious defamation that directly lead to violence against members of religious organizations or groups. I do not disagree that speech which is designed to cause or specifically encourage violent conduct could in some cases attract the attention of the United Nations. However, where the distinction between defamation and incitement to hatred (discussed above) is properly appreciated, there is no need to recognize a role for the U.N. in regulating religious defamation. The real problem lies with speech and conduct that is designed to cause or encourage violent conduct, not defamation.
In Australia, Victoria adopted anti-religious vilification laws in passing the Racial and Religious Tolerance Act (RRTA) in 2001. Under the RRTA, a person may not engage in conduct (including speech) that “incites hatred against, serious contempt for, or revulsion or severe ridicule of” a person or class of persons on the basis of “religious belief of activity.” If a person engages in “serious religious vilification” under the RRTA, criminal penalties of up to $6,000 and prison terms of up to 6 months may apply.
This is an interesting and pragmatic approach to addressing speech that has the effect of marginalizing people on the basis of their religious beliefs and practices. On the one hand, the RRTA provides for stiff criminal penalties. On the other hand, the RRTA includes a very broad immunity for public speech carried out in good faith that was directed toward (a) any genuine “academic, artistic, religious or scientific purpose” or (b) “any purpose that is in the public interest.” Sounds like the RRTA’s drafters understood the need to protect all religious defamation that falls short of actually hurting someone while still leaving judges discretion to apply criminal penalties to properly penalize vicious attacks on religious minorities.