Here's a tricky question: Is criticism of attempts by Islamic nations to limit free speech around the world itself a form of defamation against religion, and therefore subject to laws that limit speech?
The head spins.
Yet that could, in fact, be the case if current proposals before the United Nations gain a foothold and criticism of religion (any religion, not just Islam, but especially Islam) becomes a global no-no.
Our friends to the North have more experience of these sorts of laws than we do in the United States, so it's no surprise that the Canadian news and opinion magazine, Maclean's, should be interested in reporting on this issue.
In an article headlined "Stifling free speech -- globally," Maclean's correspondent Luiza Ch. Savage writes:
Pakistan brought the first "defamation of religions" resolution to the UN Human Rights Council in 1999 — before the attacks of 9/11 and a resulting "backlash" against Muslims. That first resolution was entitled "Defamation of Islam." That title was later changed to include all religions, although the texts of all subsequent resolutions have continued to single out Islam. The resolutions have passed the UN Human Rights Council every year since the first was introduced. In 2005, the delegate from Yemen introduced a similar resolution to the UN General Assembly, and it passed, as it has every year since, with landslide votes. In March, the Islamic nations were successful in introducing a change to the mandate of the UN's special rapporteur on freedom of expression — an official who travels the world investigating and reporting on censorship and violations of free speech — to now "report on instances where the abuse of the right of freedom of expression constitutes an act of racial or religious discrimination." The issue is expected to be a focal point of the UN World Conference Against Racism next year in Geneva (a gathering Canada plans to boycott after the 2001 meeting in Durban devolved into acrimonious exchanges over Israel).
The trend has rights advocates worried for numerous reasons, beginning with the language used. If the notion of "defaming" a religion sounds a little unfamiliar, that's because it is a major departure from the traditional understanding of what defamation means. Defamation laws traditionally protect individual people from being materially harmed by the dissemination of falsehoods. But "defamation of religions" is not about protecting individual believers from damage to their reputations caused by false statements — but rather about protecting a religion, or some interpretation of it, or the feelings of the followers. While a traditional defence in a defamation lawsuit is that the accused was merely telling the truth, religions by definition present competing claims on the truth, and one person's religious truth is easily another's apostasy. "Truth" is no defence in such cases. The subjective perception of insult is what matters, and what puts the whole approach on a collision course with the human rights regime — especially in countries with an official state religion.
Savage cites an issues brief written by Angela Wu of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, an American non-profit whose mission is explained by its name. (I can imagine a number of mullahs exclaiming the equivalent of "Who will rid me of this meddlesome priest?" when confronted by expressions of religious freedom.)
The brief's "executive summary" explains:
The “defamation of religions” issue is fundamentally inconsistent with the principles outlined in the United Nations’ founding and legal documents, but more importantly, it violates the very foundations of the human rights tradition by protecting ideas rather than the individuals who hold ideas. Further, they force the state to determine which religious viewpoints may be expressed. The empowerment of the state (as opposed to protection of individuals against the state) through “defamation of religions” measures is thus unique in the human rights regime. “Defamation of religions” resolutions at the UN operate as international anti-blasphemy laws and provide international cover for domestic anti-blasphemy laws, which in practice empower ruling majorities against weak minorities and dissenters.
In its concluding "recommendations" section, the brief says:
Religious freedom is best preserved through protection of religious exercise of people of all faiths, not through restricting the speech of people of some faiths. “Defamation of religion” laws claim to protect vulnerable religious communities and the civil dialogue.31 However, there are already laws against assault, false imprisonment, fraud, and even defamation of persons. “Defamation of religion” laws in practice act as a form of thought control and work solely to the advantage of religious majorities that have the power to sanction which ideas should be permitted in the public square.It is up to the Western liberal democracies to stand up to these attempts to constrain religious freedom and freedom of expression (freedom of speech and of the press). Nobody else will do it for us.