Critics of U.N. Anti-Blasphemy Resolution Overlook Opportunities for Global Dialogue

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Much is being made about the U.N. Anti-Blasphemy Resolution, which calls upon member nations, including the United States, to combat defamation of religion — Islam in particular.  Critics of the resolution include CNN’s Lou Dobbs, who describes the opposition against the resolution as a “fight for free speech,” author Christopher Hitchens, and Islamophobes around the blogosphere who scathingly label the resolution a step towards “spreading Sharia law to the West.”

The resolution, “Combating the Defamation of Religion,” was adopted in 2007 and “stresses the need to effectively combat defamation of all religions and incitement to religious hatred, against Islam and Muslims in particular.”  Unsurprisingly, religious groups and free-speech advocates in the United States accuse the resolution of impeding on constitutional rights such as freedom of expression.  John Bolton, former U.N. Ambassador, comments:  “It’s obviously intended to have an intimidating effect on people expressing criticism of radical Islam, and the idea that you can have a defamation of a religion like this, I think, is a concept fundamentally foreign to our system of free expression in the United States.”

I’ve noticed a lot of bloggers terming this issue “freedom under fire” and I see a lot of Islamophobes pouncing on it since it “scores points” for their “argument” that Muslims want to “impose Sharia law.”  What I see missing from these reactions are efforts to engage in global dialogue between the Muslim and non-Muslim worlds.  Rather than recognizing the importance of much-needed dialogue, Lou Dobbs and Christopher Hitchens spend about seven minutes defending freedom of expression, accusing the U.N. of being a “totalitarian” and “authoritarian organization,” and resorting to typical fear-mongering tactics by saying there are “Muslims who are prepared to use violence at the drop of a hat.”  Dobbs and Hitchens present us with a very singular, misconstrued, and stereotypical perspective on the situation instead of acknowledging social problems such as annually rising hate crimes and discriminatory acts against Muslims in the West, which clearly contribute to the formation of this particular U.N. resolution.

The fact of the matter is that this is a very complicated issue.  Personally, I find the U.N. anti-blasphemy resolution flawed.  Although the resolution aims to prevent violence and discrimination against people of any religious background, I believe the defamation laws can be abused by governments.  Individuals should be allowed to express their views and opinions about religions and cultures without worrying about being criminalized.  I am not against the idea of people criticizing Islam; surely everyone is entitled to their opinion, but what I am against is dehumanization and vilification of religions and entire groups of people.  There is a difference between constructive criticism and hate speech, the latter has the potential to lead to discrimination and hate crimes.  One could argue that organizations like the KKK are entitled to “freedom of speech,” but when they advocate violence towards African-Americans, it no longer complies with the American constitution.

The “Combating the Defamation of Religion” resolution was introduced by the Organization of the Islamic Conference.  The fact that the resolution stems from a Muslim organization should indicate the importance of dialogue rather than perceiving the idea as an attempt to “impose Sharia law in the West.”  As I mentioned, I do not support the resolution, but I think it raises an important opportunity for Muslim and non-Muslim communities to achieve a richer and empathetic understanding about issues related to vilification of Islam in mainstream media, pop culture, and newspapers.  During the Muslim Holy Month of Ramadan in 2007, for example, the Clarion Fund decided to distribute millions of anti-Islamic DVDs entitled “Obsession” to swing states in the U.S.  Although there are those who continue to argue that the film is an exercise of “freedom of expression,” the larger issue that is often ignored is how Islamophobic imagery was distributed on a massive scale.  Whenever Muslims protested against the DVD and wrote letters to their newspapers, they were often accused of being “over-sensitive” or “impeding on American values.”  Muslim voices were hardly given a chance to voice their own opinions about the DVD and how it made them feel.  Instead, their voices were lost and dumped into a box of Islamophobic generalizations.

The argument that people like Dobbs and Hitchens don’t seem interested in is that dehumanization and vilification of a religion and/or entire group of people is an inevitable companion of war.  In other words, in order to successfully rally supporters for war, one needs to establish an immensely contrasting divide between “us” and “them.”  Demonizing the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, in the Danish cartoons is an example of attacking the very heart of Muslims and reinforcing the “differences” between non-Muslims and Muslims, not just in the Islamic world, but also within the West.  The Danish cartoons also generated such a negative perception and attitude towards the Prophet Muhammad that CAIR (the Council for American-Islamic Relations) mobilized to hold seminars to educate and enlighten non-Muslims about the truth of the Prophet.  Muslims wouldn’t have held educational programs if they weren’t so concerned about the general public’s perception of their religion after the Danish cartoons and riots.  The mainstream media didn’t seem to be concerned with these stories because they were too busy covering the violent riots in the Muslim world.  The inability to empathize with the sentiments of Muslims all over the world (including in the West) represents a failure to establish communication and understanding.

It is important for freedom of speech to be protected, but when Muslim-Americans experience ignorance, verbal abuse, physical assault, and vandalism, it is society’s responsibility to recognize that they, like every other American citizen, deserve to be treated equally regardless of their skin color, culture, and religious background.  Sensitive issues need to be discussed fairly and openly between Muslim and non-Muslim communities, otherwise stereotypes and misunderstandings will continue to persist.  Islamophobic rhetoric and blindly defending “free speech” are just obstacles and barriers that are created to prevent necessary dialogue.  If people like Lou Dobbs and Christopher Hitchens took the opportunity to engage in respectful and open-minded discussions with Muslim-Americans, they may empathize with how Islamophobic material, like the Danish cartoons and the “Obsession” DVD, have been used to bully, harass, and discriminate against Muslims in the West.

In the end,  it is not simply a matter of “freedom of speech.”  It’s a matter of understanding one another better.  The Muslim-American experience needs to stop being treated as something “foreign;” on the contrary it is an American story that isn’t being given enough voice.  As Muslim students, who protested the Danish cartoons in Washington D.C., wrote on their banners, “Freedom of Speech Does Not Equal Freedom to Hate.”

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10 Comments

  1. iRobot said,

    April 4, 2009 at 11:07 am

    I must disagree with you. The point of the rule is to allow religions which control the government, not just Islam, to punish dissent and unbelief. If you think god appointed you its representitive, then you tend to believe that anything is ok as long as it is advancing the cause. I believe in freedom for all to do what they want as long as it does not harm someone else. I sadly agree that many, many christians wage what could be called a holy war against Islam. This rule would make these holy wars stronger not weaker. This is why we need to reject all religions, they are tribal and lead to strife. The best way to an open and just society is for all people to be free-thinkers who follow a humanist creed. All people, no matter what they look or sound like, are important and we should be striving to make everyone’s life as best as can be had as long as it does not make someelse’s life worse.

  2. brokenmystic said,

    April 4, 2009 at 2:40 pm

    iRobot,

    Where did I say I support this resolution? When you say “we need to reject all religions,” that just tells me that you have a problem with respecting other people’s beliefs. There is nothing wrong with people believing in Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, etc. as long as they don’t impose it on others.

  3. badman said,

    April 7, 2009 at 12:35 pm

    “There is nothing wrong with people believing in Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, etc. as long as they don’t impose it on others.”

    And there is nothing wrong with believing that Elvis is alive and well aboard his invisible spaceship. But you have no right to demand respect. And to what extent do you really believe Islam spreads without being imposed?

  4. brokenmystic said,

    April 7, 2009 at 2:30 pm

    Badman,

    I never said anything here about demanding respect. The goal is to achieve understanding and coexistence since there are so many stereotypes and misconceptions about Islam (and your comment about Islam being “imposed” exemplifies that). It’s wrong to generalize about an entire group of people simply based on the religion they believe in. Click on the “history” link on my blog menu if you’re interested in reading and learning about Islam. I also recommend reading the book, “The Muslim Next Door,” by Sumbul Ali-Karamali.

  5. tanya said,

    April 27, 2009 at 3:01 am

    Dude, While I want America and the West to live up to their proclaimed ideals, it would be nice to see even a hint of reciprocity in Muslim countries. Defamation of Islam? Please! There is defamation of Hinduism, Christianity, Zoroastrianism, Bahai, and Judaism going on everyday in Muslim countries, even sponsored by the governments!!! So I have to say it would be great to see some Muslims, like yourself, do a post on how bigoted Muslims can be and how some majority Muslim countries really need to work on things! Just like the American Imperialist stereotype didn’t come from nowhere, the Muslim intolerant thing didn’t either. If American Muslims would not only call on America to be more open, but their fellow religionists as well, it’d be great and might help dialog along.

  6. tanya said,

    April 27, 2009 at 3:02 am

    you said: The goal is to achieve understanding and coexistence since there are so many stereotypes and misconceptions about Islam (and your comment about Islam being “imposed” exemplifies that).

    try traveling to a majority Muslim country and see what they have to say about other religions. really, dude, Christian majority countries are hardly the only ones on earth!

  7. brokenmystic said,

    April 27, 2009 at 3:28 am

    @ Tanya,

    Whoa. You left some respectful comments on my Pakistani identity piece but then unload with your stereotypes and generalizations here. Talk about pulling a 180.

    So, let me see if I get this, since I am a Muslim, you think I have some sort of special connection with the Muslim world. Did you ever watch the “Axis of Evil” comedy tour? You should watch it if you haven’t. You’ll find that we Muslims are very funny people *shock*!

    But as comedian, Maz Jobrani, explains in his performance: We Muslims don’t have “special connections” with certain groups in the Muslim world. We don’t get discounts at the gas pump! lol. What does “fellow religionists” mean? Do you think I have Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Egypt on speed-dial?

    Your ignorance is showing, Tanya. Are you a person of color? Do you ever have to answer for crimes that were committed by OTHER people? You will never be in my position. Take a step back and look at what you are doing. You are asking a Muslim-AMERICAN to answer for things that other countries have done. You are expecting me to have an answer and ONLY because of the fact I am a Muslim. You don’t see the American part. “Muslim” still seems “foreign” to you, as if it’s not American either.

    You are also stereotyping and generalizing. When you say Muslim countries, you should be aware that the Muslim world is vast and diverse. What’s the difference between Iran and Egypt? Do you know? How about the difference between Morocco and Pakistan? What Muslim intolerance are you talking about? Are you talking about a specific group of people or are you talking about EVERY SINGLE MUSLIM on the planet?

    Defamation of Islam is very real and it’s absolutely discouraging that you reacted to that in such a sarcastic manner, especially after you read my Pakistani identity piece about how *I* have been discriminated against. I have been to Pakistan. I have seen Pakistani Sikhs and Christians *in* Pakistan. Lahore is one of the most diverse areas in Pakistan and I saw a Sikh temple when I was there.

    Throwing out silly generalizations and ignorant remarks isn’t helpful dialogue at all. Your perception is that all Muslim countries hate non-Muslims. Have you traveled there? It’s a given that there are problems in the Muslim world and I have addressed them, but this post is talking about Muslims in America too.

    When I have children one day, they will have to answer for crimes that they never committed. They will have to answer for things that happened way before they were even born. You don’t have to worry about that, Tanya. *I* do.

    Expecting me to explain or answer for what Muslim countries do is offensive because it implies that you don’t see me as an American. I suggest you check yourself, Tanya.

    Peace.

  8. Genia S. said,

    July 25, 2009 at 11:04 pm

    You say…
    “iRobot,

    Where did I say I support this resolution? When you say “we need to reject all religions,” that just tells me that you have a problem with respecting other people’s beliefs.”

    And then when your demand for respect is criticized you say “I never said anything here about demanding respect. ”

    The problem here is that a belief deserves no respect. The whole point to belief is to assume something for which there is no evidence. Gravity requires no belief, so, it’s wise to respect it. If you chose not to believe in gravity you will still wind up just as dead when you hit the earth at 100mph having jumped out of a tall window.
    Islam as a practice can be respected (as can yoga or showering every morning), but it can just as easily be regarded as a huge bunch of bullshit (the evidence for the latter is, arguably, significantly more voluminous). As the resident of a nation which allows you as much free speech as you chose to partake in, you should be defending the opponents of Islam, since it, like all religions, when left unchecked, leads to totalitarianism without exception.

    As for coercion. The number of people who started out as religion x (or whose parents are of religion x) and who then, as reasonable adults, converted to religion y incredibly small. A much larger percentage of people start out as mindless religious sheep and then recognize the inherent absurdity of said lifestyle and stop worrying about fairy tales. However, those that remain religious are absolutely coerced into it, since it is almost unheard of for people to allow their children to adopt their own beliefs organically. They are saddled with their parents’ beliefs. That is the very definition of coercion.

    • brokenmystic said,

      July 26, 2009 at 12:35 am

      Genia,

      Um, I’m not demanding respect, I thought I made that clear. Am I not allowed to defend my comment after someone criticizes me?

      As my article pointed out, free speech does NOT equal hate speech. To ignore hate speech is to ignore how harmful it can be to a community. You contradict yourself when speak about free speech and then say I “should be” defending Islam in whatever way YOU think I should. I know the Muslim-American experience better than you, I live it 24/7, so I think you telling me what to do is not only restricting of my free speech, but also (dare I say) un-American.

      Thanks for stereotyping and generalizing that the “majority” of religious people are not “reasonable adults.” I guess I’m just part of brainwashed “sheep” that are simply “saddled with their parents’ beliefs,” despite that I found Islam on my own and my parents aren’t really religious. You may say that you were simply defining coercion, but your choice of words clearly point to your own opinions about religion.

      That’s a typical stereotype we often hear about people who believe in God, nothing new. It’s very condescending and ignorant (it’s also a reminder to you that people who criticize religion are not immune to arrogance).

      You just ridiculed (your vague definition of) “religious people.” On the internet. Good job.

  9. November 13, 2009 at 10:53 pm

    [...] Critics of U.N. Anti-Blasphemy Resolution Overlook Opportunities for Global Dialogue [...]


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