Blasphemy laws or laws prohibiting defamation of a religion are incompatible with Islamic thought and philosophy. The concept of Defamation of Religions denies a person their free will to choose -- one of God's greatest gifts to humanity -- and deprives individuals of their right to free speech and expression. It also creates a climate of intolerance that can breed discrimination and violence.
This was the message I delivered last week during a Human Rights First panel discussion in Geneva, where the United Nations Human Rights Council is expected to discuss a resolution seeking this week to criminalize "defamation of religions," as it has done several years for the past decade. However, this year's debate comes at a unique and particularly tumultuous time.
Earlier this month, Pakistan's Minister for Minority Affairs, Shabbaz Bhatti, was murdered for speaking out in favor of amending the nation's blasphemy laws. His assassination came less than two months after the murder of Governor Salmaan Taseer, who was assassinated by one of his own body guards. Taseer's killer tried to justify his act by citing Islamic law. Taseer was an outspoken defender of a Christian woman who sentenced to death in Pakistan after being accused of blasphemy. The assassin, now in custody and facing murder charges, has been called a "hero" by a vocal and influential minority of Pakistanis who echo his misguided reasoning and support brutal blasphemy laws.
Blasphemy laws were first introduced to Muslim countries during the days of colonialism and are now a major obstacle to Islamic reform. Often used to restrict freedom of expression and to settle personal scores, these laws have led to devastating consequences for religious minorities and others whose views differ from the majority. It has become all too common and acceptable to file an accusation of blasphemy, claims that can include insulting the Quran or Prophet Muhammad, and to condemn those who speak out against such abuses.
Those who support the "Defamation of Religions" resolution first introduced at the United Nations over a decade ago by the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC), argue that it serves to combat the rise of hatred and discrimination against Muslims in the world. They are wrong. In fact, this resolution does the opposite. Its implementation would illustrate Muslim suppression of Western standards of freedom of speech
The Quran mandates "there shall be no coercion in matters of faith" (2:256). This Quranic injunction is meant to protect freedom of religious belief and expression for all people; it is also meant to prohibit any government or group of people from intruding on the private lives of its people. Islam calls for the freedom, not for the suppression, of free speech and it condemns violations of fundamental human rights.
In fact, the Quran documents the criticism of Islam by poets and political leaders at the time of its revelation. Though the Prophet was accused of sorcery and mania, in each and every case, God did not order him to punish the blasphemers. Instead, His order to the Prophet was to respond to their hate speech with good speech and good work. In other words, Islam calls for freedom of speech and for competing freely in the marketplace of ideas. No one has the right to play the role of God on this earth.
In the Quran, there is no provision for the absolute protection of (any) religion nor any punishment mandated for those who defame religion. Just like current standards of international law, the Quran calls for the protection of individuals and their rights. It is this protection that should be at the heart of any resolution proposed to combat religious intolerance and discrimination.
People of all faiths need states and international bodies to protect them when they are discriminated against based on their religion. Unfortunately, they are not getting any such protection. For example, Europe has not faired well on guaranteeing freedom of religion for its Muslim citizens. A recent referendum voted on by Swiss citizens banned the construction of minarets on mosques, and government intrusion on religious practices in France has become pervasive.
By contrast, in the United States where secularism means neutrality of government on religious matters, Muslims are protected by the government, especially when discrimination occurs against women who decide to wear a headscarf. When Rep. Peter King held a hearing on "radicalization of American Muslims" attempting to stereotype all American Muslims, many elected government officials, opinion leaders and civil society organizations collectively called out his behavior and rhetoric as counter to American values and protections for all its citizens.
The proposed U.N. resolution on "Defamation of Religions" will certainly not prevent discrimination against Muslims, nor will it fight religious intolerance. Its passage would only further fuel anti-Muslim stereotyping and hatred.
We must earn our respect as Muslims by working for the prosperity of our societies. We must seek essential reforms that, along with our own honorable actions, will protect and exalt the name of Islam. The Quran provides a response to defamation in general: "Good and evil are not equal; so repel evil with something good and better so that the one with whom there is enmity will become a close friend."
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