This controversy has also raised academic debates on where the limits of the irresponsible use of freedom of expression lie and whether religions can be defamed as they do not possess a legal personality.
I for one firmly believe that this was an ill-advised contention. Much to my satisfaction, we now seem to have overcome this division. In this article, I intend to elaborate on this issue. Ideas, and words that convey these ideas, have power. That power can be used positively for the good of all, or negatively to undermine democracy, freedom and equality and stability.
In that sense, hateful words and actions also have the power to harm. They can isolate and marginalize certain people, not because of what they have done, but solely because of their personal characteristics, such as ethnicity, race, religion and the like. Moreover, hate is directed at people or groups that are already vulnerable due to a history of intolerance, prejudice and discrimination.
There is no doubt that freedom of expression is a fundamental right in any democratic and pluralistic society. On the other hand, the right of all citizens to be treated with equality, dignity and respect, and to be protected from hate crimes is also an equally important fundamental right. Finding the appropriate balance between these rights is a challenge for every democratic society.
In that sense, freedom of expression is not a license to hate. In other words, freedom of expression does not mean the right to vilify. Furthermore, freedom of expression is also not sacrosanct. It is an established norm that no right is absolute. The modern concept of rights is that different rights and freedoms should mutually reinforce each other to build a strong and durable human rights system. There is no hierarchy of rights, with some rights of more importance than others. Rights work together towards a common purpose.
International conventions protecting human rights
In fact, the 1993 UN Vienna Declaration states that “all human rights are universal, indivisible, interdependent and interrelated. The international community must treat human rights globally in a fair and equal manner, on the same footing, and with the same emphasis.” On the other hand, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights affirms that the exercise of any right must be done in a manner consistent with the protection of other rights.
I wish to recall further that while international human rights instruments carefully protect freedom of expression, they also provide limits on extreme forms of expression. Indeed, as we all know, Article 19, paragraph 3 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) provides that the right to freedom of expression carries with it special duties and responsibilities and that it may therefore be subject to certain restrictions. (These restrictions are enumerated as “respect of the rights or reputations of others, protection of national security or of public order or of public health or morals.” I believe these restrictions are self-explanatory.) Finally, Article 20 of the covenant makes it mandatory for all states to enact legal provisions to protect citizens from incitement to hatred and discrimination.
On the other hand, Article 4 of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) specifically requires states to take active measures to combat racial hatred and discrimination. In summary, we can assert that the international norms (as well as most national legislation) place legal limits on hate speech and discrimination. What is needed is effective and general implementation of these measures.
Discrimination and intolerance against Muslims and manifestations of Islamophobia are well documented by reputable international organizations and human rights foundations, starting with the International Helsinki Federation, followed by the well-known reports of the Fundamental Rights Agency of the EU (previously EUMC), the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and most recently by Amnesty International. The Alliance of Civilizations (AoC) under the UN is also founded to find remedies to the East-West divide.
The reports and evaluations of these organizations contain, among others, the following key findings:
Muslims are often victims of negative stereotyping and they are vulnerable to manifestations of prejudice and discrimination.
They face hatred in the form of threats, violent attacks and damage to property. However, hate crimes against Muslims are inadequately recorded and even those that are recorded are not properly followed up.
Muslims, particularly young people and women, face limited opportunities for social advancement.
Many Muslims are subject to social exclusion and intolerance coupled with various forms of discrimination, which lead to feelings of hopelessness and alienation.
Muslims have higher unemployment rates than average; they are often employed in jobs with lower qualifications; they are over-represented in low-paying sectors of the economy; their educational achievements are below average and they live in poorer housing conditions.
Doomsday predictions such as “the clash of civilizations” have also contributed towards creating conflict situations that fuels intolerance and incitement to hatred against Muslims.
The spread of Islamophobia
As we all observed with dismay, the social climate and adverse public discourse facing Muslims in Western countries have considerably deteriorated since 9/11. As a result, pre-existing prejudices and discriminatory tendencies against Muslims have become strengthened. It must also be mentioned again that Islamophobia leads to hate crimes and as such generates fear, feelings of stigmatization, marginalization, alienation and rejection. The net result is heightened anxiety and rising violence. Islamophobia is also an assault on people’s identity and their human dignity.
It was against this background that the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) raised the issue of defamation of religions at the former Commission of Human Rights and at the present Human Rights Council in Geneva, as well as at the UN General Assembly in New York. A Resolution on the Defamation of Religions was tabled at these bodies, being inspired by the objective to curb incitement to religious hatred and intolerance. The resolution stressed that “defamation of religions is a serious affront to human dignity leading to restrictions of the freedom of religion of their adherents and incitement to religious hatred and violence.”
The OIC at the UN Offices in Geneva and New York felt that it would serve the interest of all societies to have a consensus resolution that would make the perpetrators of incitement and intolerance accountable for their actions and to bring in responsibility in the exercise of freedom of expression.
The OIC, contrary to the popular belief in the West, is not a religious organization, but a political, inter-governmental international organization. It has no agenda against any religion. Rather, it has full respect for religious and cultural diversity and categorically rejects any statement or report which would suggest to the contrary.
Although the Defamation of Religions Resolution initially was meant to protect Islam and Muslims in particular, the OIC, keeping in line with its policy of moderation, tolerance and modernization, decided to drop the terminology related to “Islam” by name to make the resolution applicable to all religions. The resolution thus tabled had been endorsed by both the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) and the General Assembly and was adopted by a comfortable majority over many successive years.
Despite the fact that the resolution was adopted by the UNHRC and UN General Assembly with the support of both OIC and non-OIC member countries, EU member states and the US voted against the resolution on the ground that an EU and US vote in favor of the resolution would undermine “freedom of expression.”
Another argument in favor of their negative vote was based on the relationship between the concept of human rights and the notion of “defamation of religion.” It was argued that the concept of “defamation of religion” was flawed from the human rights’ viewpoint.
Nonetheless, the inference that the resolution was trying to put limitations on freedom of expression was considered to be incorrect, because it was aimed at preventing the misuse or abuse of this right on the basis of existing international norms and values.
Freedom of expression vs. religious intolerance
During the past decade, the debate over religious intolerance and its relationship with freedom of expression received greater attention in both the media and political discourse. Unfortunately, notwithstanding the high exposure and wide recognition of the core issue, divergences in approach prevented the enactment of effective and concrete remedial measures. This issue has always been of vital concern also to the OIC and the organization has been consistent in advocating concrete and consensual action by the international community in the interest of interfaith harmony, which is considered essential to peaceful coexistence.
In line with OIC’s policy seeking political solutions to contemporary contentious issues, and in my capacity as secretary-general of the OIC, I tried to provide a breakthrough in outlining -- at the 15th Session of the UN Human Rights Council in September 2010 -- an eight-point approach for action, at a national and international level, aimed at addressing this issue of utmost significance on a consensual basis.
My eight-point approach comprised the following:
1. Encouraging the creation of collaborative networks to build mutual understanding, promoting dialogue and inspiring constructive action towards shared policy goals and the pursuit of tangible outcomes, such as servicing projects in the fields of education, health, conflict prevention, employment, integration and media education;
2. Creating an appropriate mechanism within governments to, inter alia, identify and address potential areas of tension between members of different religious communities, and assisting with conflict prevention and mediation;
3. Encouraging training of government officials in effective outreach strategies;
4. Encouraging the efforts of leaders to discuss within their communities the causes of discrimination and evolving strategies to counter these causes;
5. Speaking out against intolerance, including advocacy of religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence;
6. Adopting measures to criminalize incitement to imminent violence based on religion or belief;
7. Understanding the need to combat denigration and negative religious stereotyping of persons, as well as incitement to religious hatred, by strategizing and harmonizing actions at local, national, regional and international levels through, inter alia, education and awareness-building;
8. Recognizing that the open, constructive and respectful debate of ideas, as well as inter-religious and inter-cultural dialogue at local, national and international levels, can play a positive role in combating religious hatred, incitement and violence.
I am pleased to note with satisfaction that this proposal was received favorably by most stakeholders. For example, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in acknowledging the importance of the eight points towards building a consensus, asserted that “it is time to overcome the false divide that pits religious sensitivities against freedom of expression and pursue a new approach based on concrete steps to fight intolerance wherever it occurs.”
*Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu is the secretary-general of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).