Apr 15th 2009

Freedom of Religion or Freedom of Speech?

PRINCETON - Last month, the United Nations Human Rights Council adopted a resolution condemning "defamation of religion" as a human rights violation. According to the text of the resolution, "Defamation of religion is a serious affront to human dignity" that leads to "a restriction on the freedom of [religions'] adherents."

The resolution was originally proposed by the 56-nation Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), and was put to the Human Rights Council by Pakistan. It supports that it was aimed at such things as the derogatory cartoons of the prophet Mohammad published in a Danish newspaper three years ago.

Germany opposed the resolution. Speaking on behalf of the European Union, a German spokesperson rejected the concept of "defamation of religion" as not valid in a human rights context, because human rights belonged to individuals, not to institutions or religions.

Many non-government organizations, both secular and religious, also opposed the resolution. Ronald Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress, said that that body saw the resolution as weakening "the rights of individuals to express their views."

This seems like a sound argument. While attempts to stir up hatred against adherents of a religion, or to incite violence against them, may legitimately be suppressed, criticism of religion as such should not be.

The resolution is non-binding, but if nations were to enact laws putting it into effect, there can be no doubt that it would interfere with freedom of expression. For a start, what counts as "defamation of religion" is contested.

For example, the OIC said in its statement that "Islam is frequently and wrongly associated with human rights violations and terrorism." Are those associations wrong? If the OIC wishes to change many people's perception that Islam violates human rights, suppressing freedom of speech is hardly the best way to go about it. The way to change such a perception would be to marshal evidence against it, and to make the case that human rights - including the rights of women - are as well protected in Islamic countries as they are in non-Islamic countries.

To demonstrate that it is wrong to associate Islam with terrorism, the OIC might begin to compile statistics on the religious affiliations of those who engage in terrorism. By contrast, suppressing the freedom of speech of Islam's critics merely gives rise to the suspicion that evidence and sound argument cannot show their arguments to be mistaken.

Coincidentally, in the same week that Germany and the World Jewish Congress rejected the idea that defamation of religion is an affront to human dignity, and upheld the right to freedom of expression, Germany's highest court issued its ruling on a case brought by a Jewish organization, and two Jewish individuals. The court ruled against the right of the United States-based animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals to exhibit posters that juxtapose photographs of victims of the Holocaust with photographs of animals in factory farms and at slaughterhouses.

The posters bear the heading: "To Animals, All People are Nazis" - a line from the Polish-born Jewish writer Isaac Bashevis Singer. According to the court, Germany's laws on freedom of speech did not protect PETA's campaign, because to make "the fate of the victims of the Holocaust appear banal and trivial" was an offense against human dignity.

PETA was, of course, not arguing that Holocaust victims' fate was banal or trivial. On the contrary, it was using the Holocaust - which we would all agree was utterly horrific - to suggest, as Isaac Bashevis Singer did, that there are parallels between the way the Nazis treated Jews and the way we treat animals. The conclusion PETA wants us to reach is that both the Holocaust and the mass confinement and slaughter of animals are horrific. A free society should be open to discussing such a claim.

Irrespective of the merits of PETA's campaign, however, those who stood up for free speech at the UN Human Rights Council should be able to see that the fact that some forms of speech cause offense is not sufficient reason to censor them. If PETA is not allowed to state its case against our abuse of animals in the way that they judge best, because doing so might offend some people, then criticism of religion could also be prohibited on the same grounds.

If, on the other hand, a religion's adherents have no right to protection against criticism of their religion, then, even in Germany, Holocaust victims and their descendants (I am one) should not be protected against advertising campaigns that, though not intended to incite hatred or violence, may cause them offense.


Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2009.

Please read related article:

Britain trades free speech for security

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