Good sense has finally registered a victory at the United Nations. The countries of the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) have given up a 12-year long drive to have the U.N. accept the idea of “defamation of religions” and incorporate it in international human rights law. From 1999, the U.N. General Assembly, the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, and its successor body since 2006, the U.N. Human Rights Council, annually passed OIC-sponsored resolutions that sought to protect religions, particularly Islam, from “defamation.” Muslim countries saw these resolutions as necessary to defend the religion from the post-9/11 Islamophobia in the West. Incidents such as the Danish cartoons strengthened the campaign, and the OIC pushed to bring the issue on a par with racism. But human rights law protects individual freedoms rather than groups of people. The idea that a religion can be defamed places it in conflict with the freedom of expression, thought, and opinion, blurring the lines between criticism of, and critical thinking about, religion on the one hand, and incitement to hatred. The resolution also raised concerns about opening the doors to an “international blasphemy law” and providing a justification for the suppression of religious minorities, non-believers, and political dissidents. Every year, the resolution was hard-fought and divisive. Support for it dropped in the last two years as the OIC pushed for adoption of an internationally binding standard on this issue, with more countries voting against or abstaining (India in the latter group) than supporting. The recent assassinations in Pakistan of two brave opponents of the country's blasphemy law — Punjab Governor Salman Taseer and Federal Minister Shahbaz Bhatti — appear to have finally sunk the effort. On March 24, the HRC unanimously adopted a resolution on “Combating Intolerance and Violence against Persons Based on Religion or Belief” that contained no reference to “defamation.”
The Koran-burning episode in Florida reminded the world that concern among Muslims that their religion is being targeted is not baseless. A fierce backlash in Afghanistan has claimed the lives of 24 people, including seven U.N. employees. Worldwide, there are innumerable instances of prejudice and bias against Muslims. But as Asma Jahangir, the eminent Pakistani human rights lawyer, pointed out to a U.N. committee deliberating the defamation resolution back in 2009, education and dialogue among religions would be more effective than legislation at promoting tolerance. Moreover, existing human rights laws provide a strong framework through which countries, and the international community, can fight discrimination without endangering other freedoms.