Editorial Comment originally published in barnabasaid
Violent protests against the anti-Islam film Innocence of Muslims have sparked renewed calls for an international law banning the defamation of religion, chiefly Islam.
These have come from unsurprising quarters, such as Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. On Tuesday (25 September), Pakistan, speaking on behalf of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), which comprises 56 Muslim-majority states, called for expressions of “Islamophobia” to be curbed by law. Erroneous comparisons are being made with laws that criminalise anti-Semitism; these rightly protect individuals from prejudice purely on the basis of their racial identity, as opposed to protecting beliefs and ideas from criticism or challenge. What the OIC is seeking is in no way to be equated with, for example, Britain’s archaic and toothless blasphemy law; rather it is a privileged and protected status for Islam.
This is not a new campaign by Muslim leaders. For twelve years, the OIC campaigned for a “Defamation of Religion” UN resolution. Support began to diminish as Western nations realised the consequences for freedom of speech, and in 2011 the OIC moderated its demands. The latest resolutions have shifted focus, seeking to protect individuals from discrimination or violence rather than protecting particular religions from criticism.
The danger now is that, in the face of intensifying and widespread Muslim violence in response to perceived offences to Islam, Western states will give in to fear and sacrifice vital freedoms in the interests of global security.
Sadly, a number of senior Anglican leaders have already surrendered. In a letter to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon dated 15 September, four bishops called for a UN declaration to outlaw “intentional and deliberate insulting or defamation of persons (such as prophets), symbols, texts and constructs of belief deemed holy by people of faith”.
Their appeal came, they wrote, “in view of the current inflamed situation in several countries in response to the production of a film in the USA which evidently intends to offend our Muslim brothers and sisters by insulting the Prophet Mohammed, and in view of the fact that in recent years similar offensive incidents have occurred in some European countries which evoked massive and violent responses worldwide”.
These Anglican leaders (the Most Revd Mouneer Anis, President-Bishop of the Episcopal Church in Jerusalem and the Middle East, the Rt Revd Michael Lewis, Bishop in Cyprus and the Gulf, the Rt Revd Dr Bill Musk, Area Bishop for North Africa, and the Rt Revd Dr Grant Le-Marquand, Area Bishop for the Horn of Africa) are no doubt well intentioned, attempting to protect their vulnerable churches from Islamist violence and even their eradication. But in the same way that paying the ransom demands of hostage-takers only encourages kidnappings, giving in to Islamist violence will only strengthen the hand of extremists.
While Barnabas Aid absolutely condemns Innocence of Muslims and indeed any use of language, images or media that is abusive towards the leaders of other religions, the violent Islamic response that has caused dozens of deaths and the destruction of property is entirely unjustifiable and reprehensible. The charge of “blasphemy” or “offence” should not be used either as a reason to engage in violence or as a reason to curtail freedom of speech and conscience.
A global blasphemy law must be firmly resisted for a number of reasons. Firstly, it directly contradicts existing human rights law. Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states:
Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression. This right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers.
It is quite proper for the law to protect individuals from discrimination or violence on account of their beliefs, but it is not the role of states to protect beliefs per se.
Secondly, a law against the defamation of religion would in reality protect Islam more than other religions. The fervency that drives the extremists and the fear that grips their targets, as recent events have evidenced, would see to that. While Christians try to follow Christ’s command to “turn the other cheek” in response to insults and attacks, Muslims are called instead to restore their honour when it has been taken from them, and doing this is more important to them than life itself.
Christianity is one of the most maligned religions in the world; Christ is routinely abused, ridiculed and misrepresented in films, television programmes, adverts and articles. Christians have had to learn to bear the pain this causes them in order for the full freedoms that form the basis of any civilised and democratic society to be upheld.
As the debate over the conflict between Western freedoms and Islamic sensitivities continues, it is essential to understand that Muslims believe power and honour rightly belong to them. The Quran says:
“But honour, power and glory belong to Allah and to His Messenger [Muhammad], and to the believers.” (sura 63, verse 8)
Thirdly, a global blasphemy law would put Christians and other religious minorities in Muslim-majority contexts in a position of increased marginalisation and danger. One has only to look at the effect of “blasphemy laws” in specific countries such as Pakistan, where Christians and other non-Muslims are extremely vulnerable to false accusations. Many people spend years languishing in prison and are sometimes even murdered over the flimsiest accusation of blasphemy. Criminalising blasphemy in Pakistan has not resulted in greater harmony between religious groups; it has given the full force of the law to Islamic sensitivities, which has only served to exacerbate tensions between Muslims and minorities.
Finally, the calls from Muslims for protection and respect for Islam are outrageously hypocritical given the treatment of Christians and other religious minorities in most Muslim-majority contexts. Christians are routinely and systematically discriminated against, persecuted and violently attacked; in some countries, especially in the Middle East, there is a deliberate Islamist campaign to eradicate Christianity altogether.
While there remains such demonstrable lack of respect within Islam for other religions and their followers, demands for a global blasphemy law cannot and should not be taken seriously.
And those who may be prepared to sacrifice vital freedoms in the misguided belief that this will afford protection from extremist violence would do well to remember Benjamin Franklin’s famous words:
They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.