In defense of blasphemers


Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The United Nations Human Rights Council, at the behest of a number of Muslim countries led by Pakistan, adopted a non-binding resolution condemning the “defamation of religion” as a violation of human rights. Turkey´s "moderate Muslims" from the Fethullah Gülen movement have hailed this move as “a step in the right direction to deal with the growing problem of Islamophobia.”

They are wrong, for “protection of religion” is a bad and dangerous idea. Here is why.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, or ICCPR, declares that everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression, which includes freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds. The ICCPR provides for the freedom of religion and conscience. However, there are no norms in the international law that defend religions. The international human rights system protects the rights of an individual, not political, philosophical or religious ideas and beliefs of any kind. But what proponents and supporters of measures against the “defamation of religion” seek are laws to “protect” religious beliefs, not individual rights.

To justify their demands, they point to the phenomenon of Islamophobia defined as hatred and hostility toward Islam and Muslims. In their view, attributing negative and derogatory stereotypes and beliefs to Islam legitimizes discrimination, racism and violence against Muslims.

There is no question that in the post-Sept. 11 climate many Muslims do suffer from prejudice, stereotypes and fear in parts of Western societies. Some Westerners do perceive Muslims as a monolithic block fundamentally hostile to the Western way of life. The alarming rise of far-right xenophobic demagogues in some European countries only makes the task of engaging with Muslim communities all the more urgent.

But one thing is to ensure full respect for the individual rights of Muslims, including the right to practice their religion freely within a secular and democratic framework. However, to ban any critique of their religion, or certain aspects and interpretations of it, is something completely different. All citizens, whether Muslim, Christian, Jewish or atheist should have the right to criticize and even ridicule any religion or belief, prophet, rule, rite, prohibition, etc. Historically, free debate on religion, including a healthy dose of satire, was at the root of the European concepts of tolerance and freedom of speech, which is exactly why so many Muslims are so much freer in Europe than in most countries of the Muslim world. Therefore, attempts to ban “defamation of Islam” amount to an unacceptable attack on the freedom of speech and must be resisted.

In fact, it is not Islam that should be protected, but the individuals whose human rights are severely violated by the application of anti-defamation laws in some Muslim countries. In the prisons of the Islamic Republic of Iran there are hundreds of people facing death penalty for “fighting God,” their sole “crime” being expressing political opinions about the situation in their country. In 2008 a journalism student in Afghanistan was sentenced to 20 years in prison for blasphemy after he was found guilty of spreading information about women’s rights in Islam. In Pakistan, a country that sponsored the anti-defamation resolution in the U.N., blasphemy laws are used regularly and extensively against religious minorities, especially Ahmadis. There are scores of writers, artists, human rights defenders, religious dissidents who had to flee their countries lest they run the risk of being punished under blasphemy laws.

Turkey’s record in this regard is not convincing. The Turkish state still does not officially commemorate the Sivas massacre of 1993, in which thirty-seven intellectuals belonging to the Alevi sect were murdered by Sunni extremists, and the militants’ main target, Aziz Nesin, a well-known leftist writer and a Turkish translator of Salman Rushdie’s “Satanic Verses,” only narrowly escaped death.

Last year another Turkish novelist, Nedim Gürsel, was accused by the directorate of religious affairs, a public entity, of denigrating religious values in his book "Daughters of Allah." He was eventually acquitted, but many Turkish writers and artists point to increased levels of self-censorship as result. In a social climate increasingly affected by the political pietism of the Islam-rooted ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, and its allies, including the Gülen movement, to openly deny belief in God is becoming dangerous. Astonishingly, while constitutional reform is discussed to bring the country closer to the EU, no effort is made to enhance the freedom of expression. The possibility of repealing the blasphemy article 216 of the Turkish penal code, which was used to prosecute Gürsel, is not even discussed.

Fighting religiously based discrimination and prejudice is the right thing to do. But re-enforcing anti-blasphemy laws, which is what the ill-conceived U.N. anti-defamation resolution calls for, would constitute a sure step toward religious despotism. Too bad that Turkish "moderate Muslims" from the Fethullah Gülen movement fail to see this.

* Eldar Mamedov is a political adviser to the Socialists and Democrats group in the European Parliament, but is writing in a personal capacity.

© 2009 Hurriyet Daily News