Clouds are reflected off the Secretariat Building of the U.N .headquarters during the 67th United Nations General Assembly, in New York on Sept. 24, 2012
The age of the Internet has made the world far more “crowded” when it comes to provocative speech and images, especially in regard to religion. Is such speech “religious defamation” and should it be legally regulated? Should “blasphemy” (i.e. insulting a religion) be illegal, or are “blasphemy laws” themselves a human rights violation?
Or is there another dynamic at work that is being masked by such debates?
This week, at the United Nations, deliberation will again be revived over “blasphemy laws,” that is, laws about “religious defamation.”
In my view, this way of framing the discussion threatens to mask the real issues that are instrumental in producing violent protests in the Middle East. Turmoil in Muslim majority countries is fueled by extremes of economic deprivation and continued political repression. “Insult” is translated into religious insult, but the insult actually includes not only a perception of failure of respect for religion, but also a failure to respect human dignity in its economic and political expressions.
This is not to say that respect for religion is unnecessary. It is to say that respect needs to be broadened.
Looking beyond the riots to the causes is critical in order to understand how religion is used and abused to mask the deep problems faced by many in this region.
The issue of “religious defamation” or blasphemy has arisen again at the U.N. following both the deadly riots in many Muslim majority countries protesting an anti-Islamic video, and now cartoons insulting prophet Muhammad in a French publication.
Every year since 1999, the 56-nation Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) has sought to include the issue of religious defamation in U.N. Human Rights Council resolutions. Last year, the Obama administration supported a resolution against “religious intolerance” that was adopted by the U.N. General Assembly.
But recent events threaten to revive a push for the stronger concept of “religious defamation” and thus lend support to the concept of “blasphemy laws.”
The problem is, however, that “religious defamation” or blasphemy laws do not increase religious respect and tolerance; the reverse seems to be the case, and these laws are far more political in their application and results, than they are protective of religion.
Even worse, a narrow focus on “religious defamation” or even “religious intolerance” frames the issues in a distorted way.
Blasphemy Laws: Political or Religious?
Pakistan has among the strictest anti-blasphemy laws in Muslim-majority countries. Pakistan’s government declared a holiday last week so that people could rally against the anti-Islamic video, and protests turned violent in several cities, leaving 19 people dead more than 200 wounded.
Blasphemy laws in Pakistan have been used as a form of harassment and suppression of religious minority rights and democratic debate. For example, a Christian woman, Asia Bibi, was sentenced to death by hanging on a charge of blasphemy in November of 2010. Punjab Gov. Salman Tayseer visited Bibi in jail and held a press conference with her, indicating that he thought the charges misplaced. Soon after, he was shot to death by his guard, who said he had killed him because Tayseer “recently defended the proposed amendments to the blasphemy law” and for his support of Bibi.
Civil society groups and human rights groups have noted the threat to Pakistan as a democratic state from this kind of mortal intimidation; it has spread from the suppression of religious diversity to suppression of political diversity.
Pakistani commentators note that the violence of this kind of religious extremism is the expression of the people’s powerlessness and frustration with the concentration of great wealth in the hands of a few in the country, as well as anger at the United States.
“Anger against the United States, deep corruption where all wealth has been captured in Pakistan by just a few families, growing frustration has all merged into a fury where the people have turned to the only available alternative ideology: religious extremism… The liberal space has been reduced to virtually a corner and while there are still many brave voices of protest, another high profile assassination will silence many more.”
In sum, the net effect of blasphemy laws is to suppress “liberal space” where robust public debate about the problems of Pakistan can be debated and perhaps addressed.
Religious or Economic Problems?
The “Arab Spring” is blamed or lauded for a lot of changes in the Middle East that have led to instability.
It is important to recognize, however, that the final straw that led to these protests was an escalation in food prices. The main motor of unrest in the Middle East is economic deprivation. “One-fifth of the Middle East lives on less than $2 a day, and massive price hikes [in food] (exacerbated in part by rising temperatures and water shortages) proved to be the tipping point.”
A United Nations Report from 2009 underlines the problem. Half of the population in the Middle East region is under the age of 24, and unemployment rates for this demographic is “is sky high — 30 percent across the region — so there are literally tens of millions of young people on the streets with little to do.”
Their anger and frustration can often be expressed as religious insult, but, as is so often the case, economic deprivation provides the fuel.
Strengthening Religion and Society
The 2011 U.N. resolution that dropped the “defamation” language includes some language that can be very helpful in moving forward despite the conflicts of the last weeks. That text affirms “the positive role that the exercise of the right to freedom of opinion and expression and the full respect for the freedom to seek, receive and impart information can play in strengthening democracy and combating religious intolerance.”
I would take this even a step further and argue that Judaism, Christianity and Islam, the “Abrahamic religions” most prevalent in the Middle East, contain the very emphases needed to address the most fundamental issue of the region: economic deprivation of the majority of people, and the exclusion of young people in particular.
Certainly, the Abrahamic faiths do not have economic theories in their sacred texts and traditions. But it is also clear that broad support exists within these faiths for economic justice and equality as the 30 scholars and religious leaders who worked on the volume “Interfaith Just Peacemaking: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Perspectives on the New Paradigm of Peace and War” argue at length.
Religion itself contains the seeds of the solution to the deep turmoil we see today in the Middle East. What is needed is not “blasphemy laws,” but laws that protect not only freedom of religious expression, but also rights broadly interpreted as civic and economic. These are all deeply religious values and they provide inspiration for all those who seek the dignity of religious respect, economic equality, and just political participation.