From Defamation to Enlightened Pluralism
As part of our blog series: Perspectives: Religion and Public Life Mark Lagon traces the journey from defamation to enlightened pluralism. Perspectives: Religion and Public Life is a series of short blogs on questions about the relationship between religion and secularism, you can find the rest of the series by clicking here.
Hot debates about defamation of religion – and of Islam in particular – reveal a lot about the gap between values voiced and political pique. The way greater consensus was forged in the United Nations on the matter is as instructive about room for tolerance.
After the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States, questions about the sources of terrorism in fundamentalist Islamic thought prompted concerns about blanket “Islamophobia.” Four years later to the month, concerns voiced gained more prominence after the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published cartoons depicting Mohammed. The most controversial cartoon, that of Kurt Westergaard, depicted a bomb in the turban on Mohammed’s head, implying Islamic believers are inherently inclined to terrorism.
Actually, furor in Muslim majority countries did not spike immediately, for instance, when the cartoons were reprinted in Al Fagr in Egypt. It was only after some Islamist leaders urged on their own constituencies, that demonstrations and violence erupted in Lebanon, Pakistan, and elsewhere in 2006 through 2008. For example, Sheikh Omar al-Bakri sent 6 million emails in one 24-hour period spurring riots.
Policy responses couched as protecting religious tolerance could be misused as a tool of religious intolerance. Some illiberal governments in Muslim majority countries used “defamation of religion” to justify punishment of blasphemy – squelching the voices of other faiths, agnostics, and atheists. Pluralism suffered. Those governments sought legitimation of anti-blasphemy policies at home in the United Nations arena. Resolutions at the UN General Assembly and UN Human Rights Council passed regularly condemning Islamophobia.
The parochial interests of some Islamist clerics was to build their constituencies by fomenting a reaction to the Danish cartoons – whether the torching of the Danish Embassy in Lebanon or a KFC restaurant in Pakistan. So too, some diplomats in the UN had reasons to keep the bell ringing, as it were. In New York, the Egyptian Ambassador led the charge in the General Assembly. In Geneva, the Pakistani Ambassador did so in the Human Rights Council. They threatened not only to pursue nonbinding resolutions but creation of a binding UN treaty inconsistent with freedom of expression.
In the name of freedom of expression, many Western states opposed the resolutions. Many developing nations institutionalizing civil liberties at home still backed the measures in solidarity with Muslim majority countries. Yet the margin of victory of these resolutions grew slimmer over time. In the UN General Assembly, the measure won by 57 votes in 2006 and 2007, 33 in 2008, 19 in 2009, and a mere 12 votes in 2010. The anti-defamation resolution in the smaller Human Rights Council in Geneva only passed in 2010 by 3 votes.
At this point the United States displayed a willingness not just to fight the old, but create common ground. It went around the entrenched keepers of the resolutions in UN arenas, and engaged the Organization of Islamic Cooperation’s Secretary-General, Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu of Turkey, through the dedicated envoy to the OIC created under the Bush Administration. Rashad Hussain assumed that role under President Obama. He and U.S. diplomats pointed out how İhsanoğlu had embraced the very principles Secretary of State Clinton had articulated in an “Action Plan to Combat Racial and Religious Discrimination and Intolerance”: enforcing civil rights laws, prosecuting hate crimes, interfaith dialogue, and education. They appealed to him negotiate a brand new UN resolution based on that common ground, sidelining grandstanding envoys in the UN.
And so it was that in April of 2011 a new resolution passed in the UN Human Rights Council rejecting derogatory stereotyping and intolerance, especially when inciting violence, but protecting fundamental freedom of speech. It called for collaboration between governments to do something about the problem based on the best practices the U.S. Secretary of State and OIC leader each embraced. The U.S. and OIC convened working meetings between domestic legal officials to follow up words with deeds. The resolution superseded the old resolution, despite the protestations of Pakistani, Egyptian, and Saudi envoys at the UN.
This tale highlights some lessons for religion and values in public life. First, a values claim may mask ulterior motives (e.g., pro-tolerance laws were instruments of intolerance). Second, politics matter (e.g., UN envoys of ostensible US allies clung to anti-defamation resolutions to show their independence from the US.) Third, fraying consensus can spur new understandings (e.g. when the old anti-defamation resolutions were on the verge of losing, OIC leaders compromised). Fourth, compromise on details need not undercut core values (the U.S. advanced freedom of expression in the new resolution).
Finally, most importantly, tangible impact on peoples’ dignity is what counts: extending best practices for protecting tolerance was much more fruitful than polemical food fights. We will just have to see if this turn of events persists in the UN and grows in practice in peoples’ lives, but it offers cues about enlightened pluralism.
Mark P. Lagon is Professor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and Adjunct Senior Fellow for Human Rights at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is former U.S. Ambassador to Combat Trafficking in Persons and Deputy Assistant Secretary for International Organizations at the U.S. State Department.