New Cause for Muslim Leaders: ‘Defamation’

Clash at U.N. Between Competing Visions of Religious Freedom

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By J.J. Goldberg

Published October 05, 2012, issue of October 12, 2012.
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The idea of outlawing defamation of Islam was first brought to the U.N. human rights commission in 1999 by Pakistan, acting on behalf of the 57-nation Organization of Islamic Cooperation. The main complaint at the time was that Islam was suffering widespread defamation by unfair association with terrorism, violence and human rights abuses.

The commission adopted a statement without a vote, but it wasn’t what the Islamic bloc was looking for. Avoiding any mention of “defamation,” it focused mainly on religious intolerance and discrimination, with a nod to “stereotyping” of Islam. After a 2000 bid produced the same result, the Islamic bloc presented a firmer resolution in 2001. This time it was brought to a vote and passed 28 to 15 with nine abstentions. Most of the “no” votes were from European and other Western democracies.

Over the next decade the Islamic bloc pushed for increasingly forceful resolutions, succeeding each year but with steadily declining support. The first time the General Assembly voted on the issue, in 2006, it passed 111 to 54, with 18 abstentions. By 2009 yeas had dropped to 80, with 61 nays and 42 abstaining. Opponents and abstainers now included large numbers of Latin American and African nations that had previously supported it. There were even a few abstentions from smaller members of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, like Benin and Cameroon, whose populations are less than 25% Muslim.

Finally, in December 2011, pressure from the European Union and the Obama administration resulted in a General Assembly resolution that dropped “defamation of religion” altogether. Last year’s resolution reflected the Western version of religious freedom, calling for protection of believers, not beliefs. That’s the backdrop to this year’s startling new assertiveness.

It’s important to note that the overall tone of all four leaders’ speeches was conciliatory. Morsi spent much of his speech urging global action to fight hunger in Africa and stop the slaughter in Syria. Zardari spoke mostly of Pakistan’s tens of thousands of losses, including his wife, Benazir Bhutto, “in the epic struggle against terrorism.” All four spoke about the Palestinians. Morsi notably reaffirmed Egypt’s commitment to the Arab Peace Initiative — the plan, first floated by Saudi Arabia in 2002, that promises Israel full peace and recognition from all 22 Arab states in exchange for a return to the pre-1967 armistice lines.

There’s good and bad in what some in the region now call the new Arab awakening. Those who try to blame (or praise) President Obama for the events should proceed with caution. For good or ill, he wasn’t the president who started sending in troops to topple Arab dictators. That would be the guy before him.

Contact J.J. Goldberg at goldberg@forward.com


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