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News analysis: Experts say blasphemy laws are undercurrent of unrest in Middle East

Protections needed to stop an 'theocratic iron curtain' from falling say experts

Published: Thursday, Sept. 27 2012 6:00 p.m. MDT

"Globally, countries that have laws against blasphemy, apostasy or defamation of religion were more likely to have high government restrictions or social hostilities than countries that do not have such laws," the report concluded.

Pew researchers found that social hostilities involving religion were high or very high in 19 of the 44 countries that enforce blasphemy laws and in four of the 15 countries that have such laws but do not enforce them. By contrast, among countries that do not have such laws, 58 percent had low restrictions or hostilities against religion.

The 56-nation Organization of Islamic Cooperation launched a campaign in 1999 for the U.N. to pass a resolution for an international blasphemy law banning defamation of religion. Then late last year, the U.N. General Assembly finally adopted a compromise resolution that backed away from outlawing blasphemy and instead calls for "combating intolerance, negative stereotyping, and stigmatization of, and discrimination, incitement to violence, and violence against persons based on religion or belief.”

While the United States supported the resolution, critics call it a dangerous move that tacitly defends blasphemy laws.

But Micheal Kozak, a former ambassador to Belarus and currently senior adviser in the State Department's Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, said those who criticize the resolution usually haven't read it.

"The resolution is the antithesis of the defamation resolution and does not support blasphemy laws. That's why we joined it," he said, explaining that it adopts the U.S. legal standards of free expression while condemning actions that offend or oppress religious belief.

He said the resolution also gives the United States a standard to which to hold countries accountable to what they agreed to.

"It says if people say disgusting things the right response is for political, religious and civic leaders to respond by condemning those things," Kozak said. "Where we are really strong is that saying bad things don't warrant violence or criminal action."

He said the administration's response to the YouTube video and the demonstrations it helped spawn has been consistent with that position.

'Opening salvo'

In response to renewed calls last week by the OIC for an international blasphemy law, Obama in his speech before the General Assembly on Tuesday condemned the anti-Muslim video that helped spark the recent attacks, calling it "cruel and disgusting." But he strongly defended the U.S. Constitution's protection of the freedom of expression, "even views that we profoundly disagree with."

According to the Associated Press, the theme of Obama's speech was that leaders of the Muslim world should also stand up for free speech and oppose those who vent their anger with violence.

"There are no words that excuse the killing of innocents. There is no video that justifies an attack on an embassy. There is no slander that provides an excuse for people to burn a restaurant in Lebanon or destroy a school in Tunis or cause death and destruction in Pakistan," Obama said.

Shea praised Obama's defense of free speech, calling it "an important opening salvo."

"This conversation about the critical importance of individual freedoms is coming late and is just beginning," she said. "It must be sustained both diplomatically at the U.N. where it will be up to us to take a lead on it, and in the application of foreign policy."

On Monday, U.S Ambassador Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe told the U.N.'s Human Rights Council that freedom of religion is inseparable from free expression, according to Reuters.

Donahoe, trying to blunt efforts by the OIC for a blasphemy ban, said that when the two freedoms are allowed to flourish, "we see religious harmony, economic prosperity, societal innovation and progress, and citizens who feel their dignity is respected."

"When these freedoms are restricted, we see violence, poverty, stagnation and feelings of frustration and even humiliation," she said.

Shea said laws against defamation should only apply to individuals and never institutions or ideas.

"Religions are not just symbols, they are complex beliefs systems," she said. "In protecting all these complex belief systems from critique, negative commentary or ridicule there won’t be anything left."

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