After the upheaval in the Muslim world over the (terribly put together) “Innocence of Muslims” video, it looks like there will be a strong push in the United Nations to criminalize blasphemy (in case you didn’t have enough of a reason to celebrate for International Blasphemy Rights’ Day next Sunday).
Protesters have ignored the United States government’s denunciation of the video and Pakistan actually declared Friday as the “Day of Love” for the Prophet Muhammad.
Certain Muslim leaders are now pushing to punish blasphemers:
For years the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation, a 57-member bloc of countries, has proposed a resolution criminalising the defamation of religion. By last year free-speech proponents had persuaded so many countries to ditch the cause that no new defamation-of-religion resolution was proposed.
Now, Turkey heads the Organisation and the Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has said he would raise the topic in New York next week.
Many free speech activists are obviously concerned about this. Organizations (like Amnesty International) and Western democracies have resisted such a law for years since the blasphemy laws were generally the result of repressive regimes and the imprisonment or execution of dissidents (as in the cases of Pussy Riot and Alber Saber).
Courtney Radsch, program manager for the Global Freedom of Expression Campaign at the non-profit group Freedom House, had this to say:
“I expect that we’ll regress to where we were a couple of years ago. Human rights are not about protecting religions; human rights are to protect humans,” she said. “Who is going to be the decision-maker on deciding what blasphemy is?”
That is what is so problematic about blasphemy laws: We never really have a good answer for what constitutes blasphemy. Does my existence as an atheist count? Can I proclaim out loud that there’s no God? There are several countries in the world that throw people in jail for being apostates or atheists and there are too many nuances where this could easily get out of hand.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon disappointed free-speech activists last week by suggesting limitations to freedom of speech when it was “used to provoke or humiliate” which is still too vague to be of any use. These laws prosecute hurt feelings and that’s not (and shouldn’t be) a criminal offense.
Atheist groups are speaking out about this proposed law, too, including the Atheist Foundation of Australia:
The Atheist Foundation of Australia (AFA) in the strongest possible terms opposes the United Nations moving to a stance where blasphemy will be made a crime. David Nicholls president of the AFA responded today with “It should be emphasised to the UN how irrelevant blasphemy is in a democratic secular society such as Australia and other western countries. We would do well to strongly remind those that propose worldwide blasphemy laws that our opinion of the idea of blasphemy is that it is just a tool to stifle criticism of religion, and in this country we welcome criticism and discussion. Ban Ki-Moon is making a grave error of judgment on this matter and appears to be pandering to the Islamic world.”
Nicholls continued, “Blasphemy laws are essentially religious laws, and will always impose upon people in other religions and the non-religious. Blasphemy laws serve to deny people the right to question, to explore the possibilities or to come to their own conclusions. To artificially restrict the marketplace of ideas only to those imposed by fear and force is to deny people the right to decide for themselves.”
The Center for Inquiry agrees with those sentiments:
“Let us not go down this path, a path that inevitably leads to the persecution and demonization of individuals for their beliefs — or lack of beliefs — about religion,” said Ronald A. Lindsay, president and CEO of the Center for Inquiry. “Free expression is a fundamental human right. Too many are already sitting in jail, or have been injured, terrorized, or killed for exercising that right. It’s bad enough that these ‘blasphemy laws’ exist at all, anywhere in the world. To enact them on a global scale would represent a huge step backward for human rights.”
So true. As the saying goes, “Blasphemy is a victimless crime.”