Obama's Indonesian opportunity
By Tad Stahnke
Human Rights First
President Obama will travel to Indonesia in June as part of his ongoing effort to improve diplomatic relations between the United States and the Muslim world. One issue that should be on the agenda is Indonesia's efforts to use blasphemy laws to suppress religious views, often leading some groups to launch violent attacks against Muslims who have been accused of expressing unorthodox interpretations of Islam, or others who are accused of insulting Islam.
In April 2008, the founder of the heterodox Islamic sect Al-Qiyadah Al-Islamiyah, Abdul Salam, was sentenced to four years in prison under Indonesia's blasphemy laws. The Indonesian Court declared Salam's teachings to be counter to mainstream Islamic beliefs. The same year, the Ahmadiyah sect was banned from practicing their faith for disobeying "official" Islamic doctrine. Troubled by the misuse of the blasphemy law, civil society groups have recently requested judicial review of the controversial law at the Constitutional Court.
But the problem of governments using blasphemy laws to curtail citizens' freedom of religion and speech goes beyond Indonesia. The United Nations has documented scores of incidents of arrest, arbitrary detention, assault, murder and mob attacks sparked by accusations of blasphemy. Journalists, bloggers, teachers, students, poets, religious converts and others have been charged - and sentenced - under existing blasphemy laws for exercising their right to freedom of expression.
In Afghanistan, Sayed Perwiz Kambakhsh, a student and journalist, was sentenced to 20 years in prison in 2007 for downloading and distributing material from the internet that discussed the role of women in Islam. He was initially sentenced to death. After two years in prison, he was secretly pardoned and fled the country. Another Afghan, Ghaus Zalami, was sentenced to 20 years in prison for publishing an unofficial translation of the Qur'an. Afghanistan's Supreme Court issued a ruling condemning the Baha'i faith as a form of blasphemy.
In Pakistan, 833 people were charged under Pakistan's blasphemy laws from 1986-2006 Anyone who "by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representation or by any imputation, innuendo or insinuation, directly or indirectly, defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet...shall be punished with death, or life imprisonment." Wounding the religious feelings of another can receive up to one year in prison.
In Turkey, two men were charged in 2006 with "insulting Turkishness" and defamation of Islam after being involved in a Bible study class.
President Obama and his administration should address this issue with individual countries -- including Indonesia later this month. Beyond that, however, the U.S. must play a leading role in encouraging multi-lateral solutions to the widespread problem of abusive blasphemy laws.
Right now, the United Nations' Human Rights Council - which includes the United States - has the opportunity to revisit the question of "defamation of religions," the idea that religions need protection in law from defamatory or insulting statements. Resolutions seeking the implementation of new international standards have been before the United Nations for more than a decade. It is an issue both serious and complex that has drawn greater attention - and heat - since the tragedy of September 11 and other events which have increased tensions between Muslims and others.
Passage of the resolution would mean that the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), the 57 member organization of states with Muslim majority populations that is leading this effort, has made further progress in giving credibility to national blasphemy laws found in several OIC member states while establishing a restrictive international blasphemy standard. Further restrictions on the freedom of religion and expression would be certain to follow, especially in some of the countries that have most vigorously promoted prohibitions on defamation of religion at the international level.
Governments should oppose all attempts to create internationally binding obligations that would undermine established universal rights and freedoms. The defamation of religion principle is inconsistent with universal human rights standards that protect individuals, rather than abstract ideas or religions. It risks promoting an atmosphere of hostility in which governments can restrict freedom of expression, thought and religion, preventing the peaceful expression of political or religious views, or the practice of minority religious faiths - all in the name of protecting religion from defamation. It would permit governments to determine which ideas are acceptable.
Supporters of the defamation of religion concept argue that such laws are necessary in order to fight incitement to discrimination, hostility and violence, as well as to protect freedom of religion. These arguments are not supported by the experience of countries that already have sweeping blasphemy laws in place. It would be far better to focus on practical policies that confront problems of prejudice that are in line with existing international norms and that safeguard basic freedoms.
For example, in its 2008 report on Violence Against Muslims, Human Rights First documented a troubling level of anti-Muslim violence and prejudice throughout Europe and North America. But the defamation of religion concept damages rather than advances efforts to combat this human rights concern. Instead, governments should employ a strategy that both supports existing international norms on freedom of expression and confronts the growing problem of hostility and violence targeting members of religious and other minorities, whether they are Muslims in Europe or other minorities elsewhere in the world.
As members of the U.N. Human Rights Council meet in Geneva, they should take the following actions.
First, governments should protect international norms on freedom of expression by voting to block efforts to establish new norms that prohibit defamation of religion. The protection of members of Muslim, Christian, Jewish or any other religious community from discrimination, hostility or violence is not advanced by restricting freedom of expression.
Second, states need to step up efforts to protect the universal rights of members of religious and other communities by adopting policies to combat violent hate crimes, confront hate speech, tackle discrimination, and ensure respect for freedom of religion.
Just as President Obama's trip offers him the opportunity to directly address human rights and freedom of expression concerns with Indonesian leaders, the current U.N. Human Rights Council meeting gives member nations the chance to unite in support of a positive set of measures on these same problems and to find creative political solutions that promote and protect human rights rather than undermining and threatening them.
Tad Stahnke is Director of Policy and Programs at Human Rights First.
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