Can Arab/Muslim Countries Criticize Israel Under the UN Anti-Blasphemy Resolution?

The turning point occurred on June 16, 2008 at 4:40 pm, when David Littman took the floor at a UN Human Rights Council meeting to speak on behalf of the Association for World Education (AWE) and the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU).

"Mr. President," he said, "In the context of integrating the human rights of women throughout the United Nations system, we wish to draw attention to four examples of widespread violence against women that we believe merits far greater attention from the Council.

"One, regarding FGM [female genital mutilation], we are making available our detailed written statement -- "

And that's as far as it went before the gavel sounded.

Doru Costea, the president of the UN Human Rights Council, noted a point of order, and gave the floor to Egyptian delegate Amr Roshdy Hassan, who raised an objection over the joint written statement that the AWE and IHEU had circulated.

"The first paragraph, you talk about Egypt and the Sharia law. In the second paragraph you talk about Sudan, Pakistan, and the Sharia law. The third and fourth paragraphs are on the Sharia law... If we have no time to come on something new, then we shouldn't speak."

Pakistani delegate Imran Ahmed Siddiqui was given the floor when Costea asked for other requests on the matter.

"Mr. President, the voices which we hear in this Council and the issues they raise are not unfamiliar. There is an agenda behind it... we have strong objections on any discussion, any direct or indirect discussion, any out of context, selective discussion on the Sharia law in this Council... we would again request you to please use your authority to bar any such discussion again, at the Council."

After some discussion, including protests against the censorship from Slovenia and Canada and a 40 minute break, Doru Costea returned with a ruling allowing Littman to continue, which he did briefly until interrupted again by the Egyptian delegate, who challenged the ruling.

As part of his objection to the continued discussion on human rights abuses like FGM, child marriages, and the stoning of women, Hassan declared: "I couldn't care less if I will win or lose this vote. My point is that Islam will not be crucified in this Council."

Following the meeting, the "Defamation of Religions" resolution was proposed by Pakistan on behalf of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), a body made up of 57 Muslim countries. It was passed by the UN Human Rights Council with 23 votes in favor, 11 against, and 13 abstentions. The complete text of the resolution can be read here.

Although it was triggered as an attempt to quell criticism of Islam, Muslims, and Sharia law, the resolution does call for "all possible measures to promote tolerance and respect for all religions and beliefs" -- which unquestionably also includes Judaism.

So, to what extent does this apply to the right of the Arab and Muslim countries in the OIC to criticize the Israeli occupation -- in particular the building and expansion of settlements in the West Bank?

The members of the OIC almost unanimously consider most aspects of the occupation of Palestinian territory a human rights issue, much like female genital mutilation, death by stoning, and child marriages are.

If discussion on Sharia-based abuses against women and children is now off limits at the Human Rights Council, wouldn't the same apply to the Israeli occupation? The right of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel is clearly articulated in the Torah, the five books of which are also accepted by Christians as the Old Testament. Take the passages 23:31-2 from Shemot (Exodus):

"And I will set thy border from the Red Sea even unto the sea of the Philistines [Mediterranean], and from the wilderness unto the River; for I will deliver the inhabitants of the land into your hand; and thou shalt drive them out before thee. Thou shalt make no covenant with them, nor with their gods."

Or 1:8 from Devarim (Deuteronomy):

"Behold, I have set the land before you: go in and possess the land which the LORD swore unto your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give unto them and to their seed after them."

Or 15:18-21 from Breishit (Genesis):

In that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram, saying: 'Unto thy seed have I given this land, from the river of Egypt unto the great river, the river Euphrates...'"

Additional specific, detailed descriptions of the borders of the Land of Israel are given in passages such as 34:1-15 from Bamidbar (Numbers).

These passages are among many in the Jewish scripture that form the foundation for everything from Zionism to current Israeli policy, just as the Quran and Sunnah (Muhammad's tradition or hadith) form the foundation for Pakistan's Constitution. It is in accordance with them that Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has called for the expulsion of Arabs from Israel, and that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party's charter states the following about the building of settlements and expansion:

"The Jewish communities in Judea, Samaria [ie West Bank], and Gaza are the realization of Zionist values. Settlement of the land is a clear expression of the unassailable right of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel and constitutes an important asset in the defense of the vital interests of the State of Israel. The Likud will continue to strengthen and develop these communities and will prevent their uprooting."

As the debate to make the anti-defamation legislation a legally binding treaty gets underway this week, how do the Arab/Muslim countries of the Organization of the Islamic Conference plan to continue their criticism of the Israeli occupation and settlement expansion without, in a way, violating their own proposed resolution?

Are they open to the likelihood that their proposed assault on the freedom of speech of others also potentially curtails their own? Does victimhood take on a new definition when applied to the child brides of Saudi Arabia or the allegedly adulterous women stoned to death in Somalia compared to the victims of the bombings in Gaza last year?

Finally, is criticism of Quranic passages and Sunnah equivalent to criticism of passages in the Torah in the eyes of the UN Human Rights Council? Both books are believed to be the word of God by their adherents, and both prescribe capital punishment for blasphemy by stoning (Vayikra/Leviticus, 24:16) or beheading (Quran, 8:12 and several hadith). Who decides where to draw the line?

The sadly elusive take-home message from all of this was perhaps best articulated by Canada's representative to the Council, who said: "It is individuals who have rights, not religions."