UN-building, Geneva, September 16th 2010: Faith and free speech: Defamation of religion and freedom of expression.
A panel discussion held in conjunction with the Human Rights Council meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, September 16, 2010
Preamble: PEN International on faith and free speech:
– New laws are not the answer to emotional reactions. Human rights belong to individuals – not to states, organizations or ideas.
• Human rights belong to individuals – not to states, organizations or ideas, John Ralston Saul, president International PEN.
• Every one of the prophets and founders of religion has had to stand up against laws of defamation and claims of heresy. All religions were born as forms of freedom of expression, Ariel Dorfman, Chilean novelist and playwright.
• The Indonesian experience with a Defamation of religions Act shows that the Act violates Indonesia’s international treaty obligations by protecting religious ideas instead of the persons who adhere to religious ideas, denies equal protection and freedom of association for people with disfavoured religious beliefs and criminalize peaceful expressions of sincere religious beliefs, Budhy Rahman, The Asia Foundation.
• The question is whether legal proceedings are good responses to emotional reactions. I think not. We must work for awareness in public discussion, information and dialogue. The Muslim world must not only work on western mentality by introducing new law. Muslims must work on our own victim mentality, Tariq Ramadan, Islamic Scholar.
• We see a disproportion of focus on restrictions and not on positive measures to secure the right to speak and the right to be heard, Agnes Callamard, Director of Article 19.
• The Muslim world does not see this as a debate between freedom of expression and religion. Western double standards represent misuse of freedom of expression and insults to religions. The question is not of defamation of religions but about victimization of Muslims, Zamir Akram, Pakistani ambassador.
These were some of the main points made during the almost two hour long debate over the question of introducing new international norms which will legally ban defamation of religions.
Minutes of the meeting:
The meeting was chaired by president John Ralston Saul, International PEN.
Agnes Callamard, Director of Article 19
Budhy Rahman from Asian Foundation in Indonesia
Tariq Ramadan, Islamic scholar based in Oxford.
Taped interviews with:
Nobel prize laureate Wole Soyinka, Nigeria
President of PEN American center, Kwame Anthony Appiah, Ghana
Noelist and playwright Ariel Dorfman, Argentina
Scholar and writer Azar Nafisi, Iran
Introduction by John Ralston Saul:
The whole argument about ban on defamation of religions is filled with confusion and different assumptions. One assumption is that religions have made valuable contributed to positive development. Another assumption is that religion has caused oppression, conflicts and limitations on rights and development. A central point today is that we can’t base legal suggestions on assumption that religions do just one thing.
Should we accept that writers should be limited by Islamic mullahs, Florida pastors or ministers I Ireland?
Law does not work for regulating questions dealing with freedom of expression. Religions are organizations of believers and represent power. We can’t accept freedom from critique of religions. Human rights belong to individuals – not to states, organizations or ideas. Rights whichcould be used to exercise increased power over citizens.
I will inform you about an example of ban on religious defamation from Indonesia. The recent debate over religious freedom and freedom of expression in Indonesia roots from the Defamation of religious act and the Public Faiths Supervision Coordinating Body (Bakor Pakem). The religious defamation act was introduced as article 156a in the Indonesian Criminal Code, a legacy from the Dutch Occupation. The article 156 deals with incitement to hatred and insults to different groups and article 157 details the sanctions that apply for public displays of hostility. The new article does not protect minority groups. It protects only the majority or “primary religions” from so-called deviant interpretations. The banning of specific faiths in Indonesia is based on the Defamation of religious Act in the Criminal Code, and not on the amended article 28 of the Constitution, which guarantees religious freedom.
The article stems from before the Indonesian constitution was amended in 1965. The amendment included religious freedom. The question is whether the article is an exception to the right to religious freedom. The Indonesian Ulema Council and Bakorpacem believe it is an exception which restricts religious freedom and that Article 156a must be enforced as it is. Radical Muslim groups support this view. Radical groups intimidate other religious groups which they find deviant and misleading.
The concept of misleading is translated from Arabic and understood as defaming religion. The word deviant is not included in any laws in Indonesia. The Ulema uses the phrase “deviant and misleading” in relation to particular minority faiths and sects considered to be deviant based on theological arguments from the Qur’an and hadith. Radical Muslim groups use “religious defamation” and deviant and misleading” interchangeably to intimidate different groups. In the cases of religious defamation in Indonesia, the weight of the final sentence is directly linked to the level of mass pressure from radical groups.
Defenders of religious freedom and freedom of expression believe that article 156a of the criminal Code must be removed and reworked so that it accords with the article 28 of the amended Constitution. Scholars argue that ratification of the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) requires the government to protect all faiths and prevent violence against minority groups.
Conclusion: Ban on defamation of religion in Indonesia represents a violation of Indonesian obligations under international human rights treaties. It is protecting religious ideas instead of protecting persons who adhere to alternative religious ideas. It is excluding groups from their rights to freedom of expression, their right to organize and their right to religious freedom. Learning from the Indonesian experience: The ban on defamation punishes peaceful discussion of ideas. It is abused by government and radical groups to punish groups of so-called deviant religious beliefs and ideas A ban on defamation of religions is therefore not compatible with the rights of the individuals to feely exercise and peacefully express their thoughts, ideas and beliefs .
Two points I want to make:
1. The importance of positive measures.
2. The importance of process and space.
The interplay we now see between religions and freedom of expression showed this spring a reduced support of ban on defamation of religion. But on the other hand we have the Florida pastor and bans on veils in Europe and on minarets in Switzerland and the discrimination against religious minorities in Egypt Pakistan. The question is how do we deal with these questions in a multicultural world?
We see examples of religious intolerance. And we see a push to move the question of incitement to hate against individuals on base of religion. A move could be made to look at these problems in light of the article against incitement to hatred. We see religious intolerance and we must find ways to handle it. But this is not done by a ban on defamation of religions.
Article 19 has developed a document: The Camden principles. These principles form a foundation for the exercise of all human rights. Protection against harmful practices is best done through positive measures. The last section of the principles deals with restrictions on hate speech. But we see a disproportion of focus on restrictions and not on positive measures to secure the right to speak and the right to be heard.
There is a powerlessness felt by many groups. Some community leaders justify defamation of religion as hate speech. Extremist views are generally given to much attention.
It is not always the most extreme expressions which hurt the most. It could well be the relentless little infringements of racism and sexism. Another problem is access to media and public opinion. Minorities here in Europe – Romans – all should have access to the media and to public debate.
Process and space: I don’t think the best place to handle these issues is here in the UN Human Rights Council. I would like to highlight a current process: An organizing of regional meetings on article 20 in the International convention on civil and political Rights – ICCPR – through peaceful dialogue. This process highlights different perspectives. I think this is an important process and I hope the regional inputs will feed into the discussion in the ad hock committee on complementary standards in the ICCPR.
Also in Kenya in June we had a very good process before the referendum for a new constitution. People were scared. They feared a repetition of the violence they had experienced in the elections in 2007. A National commission for cohesion and integration set up a two day meeting dealing with different perspectives on how to prevent incitement to hatred and religious defamation. The debate was fantastic, expressing different view and the experience of building together a nation. My point is that there are different mechanisms to discuss difficult questions.
The collaboration with PEN has been important for me during last years: Especially in the United States, where I have been prevented from entering for six years.
Difficult question: Come to agreements – important to clarify what we are talking about: The question is whether legal proceedings are good responses to emotional reactions. An important starting point is that this is not only Islamic question. These feelings are feelings within religious communities all over the world. They feel that they are not taken seriously and that their faith is under attack. Muslims share the same feeling, and Jews, and Christians. We are dealing with shared feelings. The question is how to respond without law.
This is an international issue – not a western discussion. All the feelings are shared around the world. Especially religious people in the south see the West as secular societies which are not interested in religions and religious feelings. We have to deal with this experience of fear, mistrust and doubt on both sides.
We experience an ongoing process of controversies: First there were Jesus in movies, then the Mohammad caricatures. Now we have the burning of the Koran and the question of a mosque. Is the only way to stop these controversies by law? Muslims in the UK are saying: Britain have had blasphemy procedures. Why not also for Muslims? How to react against incidents like the pastor in Florida? Legally there is no way to prevent him. The first amendment gives him the right to express freely. But he does not have a license to burn. We are quite weak in this. Alternative measures to deal with such questions are needed. Not more law, but awareness in public discussion, information, dialogue. In Europe we see that people get scared of people coming with different religions, culture and ideas. So they respond by making law against minarets and burkas. These are laws to protect us against the people who are coming.
There is no absolute freedom of expression anywhere. There are different restrictions against hatred and racism. But there should not be restrictions against discussion of religious and ideas. The West does have limitations, but also double standards. What is common is an agreement to protect against hatred. Legally you can publicly laugh of the suffering of Jews – but it is not civil and nobody wants to do it.
We must be consistent and not let some criticism be possible and other not. Denying the holocaust is for me unacceptable. But should we protect history by law? What wants to be heard by people, is not more law but consistency in the way law is implemented in our society. This is a question of minorities and majority – about power. There must be equal right to criticize and being criticized. Should a competition of feelings be resolved by law?
Critical discussion: We need more critical debate. In Pakistan I encourage my fellow Muslims to take a more critical distance and not ask for more laws: We do need positive measures – and not just say no to more laws. We must all have a better understanding of what is at stake.
John Ralston Saul:
Large part of the weight has been put by the panel on not to establish more laws, but to use other measures. The interfaith movement should have been dealing with many of these issues. The question is why they are not carrying the weight? Could we push the interfaith movement to prevent more violence?
This is a responsibility for every human being – not only the organized religions. The current law is to blunt. We must bring in a different perspective of the role of states. There are community radios and other ways to get access to public debate. Public service broadcasting does play a key role in integrating different perspectives. So this is important both for states and for the individuals.
What we are facing are exceptions for interfaith circles. Look at what is happening in various interfaith dialogues: They are sharing values and perceive the surrounding as threatening. We need an opening of the closed circles to dialogue with the outside world. Interfaith dialogue should also include agnostics and atheists. This would bring in other perspectives. We are not doing the job without engaging the surrounding societies.
It’s important with presence of religious perspectives in the debate and not just for defending religion . In civil societies religious societies must be recognized for giving contributions to the debate, not only seen as backwards. This applies to committed Muslims and Westerners. Religion must not be seen as preventing you from being a serious European or Canadian.
There exists no right not to be criticized. We must work through dialogue, education and solidarity. Not try only to defend ourselves exclusively by law.
The interfaith dialogue is often too intellectual. What is the meaning of interfaith dialogue? Democracy and better collaboration between religions and culture must be more developed. Which means we need a more concrete dialogue. It must deal more with practical problems. There are so much problems with poverty in Asia. Much of the interfaith dialogue is not connected with practical dimensions like poverty, environmental issues and development. What for example is the common platform between Christianity and Islam? Let’s say it is love. What then is the spiritual meaning of love into concrete questions dealing with poverty and environment?
The filmed interviews with Wole Soyinka, Ariel Dorfman, Azar Nafisi and Kwame Anthony Appiah were shown. See video from American PEN here.
John Ralston Saul:
This is a provocative debate. The debate is seen by many as based on western individualism. But provocations exist in every healthy civilization.
It is a very difficult but critical debate: During the cartoons I met with Hindus and Muslims. And in Africa people were not used to this kind of provocation. It was seen as a cultural, silly provocation. In Africa they had another tradition. Not neglect. It was not provocation which was perceived – it was arrogance.
It is important not only to see the arrogance and to play the victim role. Muslims must work on their state of victimhood. For Africans it was difficult to perceive the US as victim after 9/11 It seemed strange. But this is basic psychology. Therefore Muslim must not only work on western mentality – but on our own victim mentality.
There are many people in Africa in prison because of provocations. Provocations are not a western idea. Provocation – depends on who provokes – and who are being provoked. This is a question of power structure.
The Indonesian perceptive of West: Many ideas come to Indonesia from the West: Gender ideas, democracy, human rights. The problem is: How to relate this with local wisdom and Muslim tradition in Indonesia? Is it possible to receive global ideas and still be an Indonesian Muslim? European Muslims develop their own identity. In Indonesia is the discussion; How western can we go? If we follow the Quran: Can the Quran legitimate the human rights? Fully – or just half of the human rights? Many scholars in Indonesia accept fully the human rights – without rejection of Islamic faith.
Questions from the audience:
1. Asks Tariq Ramadan what he thinks about an Egyptian tv series which portrays the Muslim Brotherhood and Ramadans grandfather.
2. Asks Tariq Ramadan if he thinks it’s right to establish a Muslim center by Ground Zero or if the Center should be more inclusive.
Pakistan ambassador Zamir Akram (also representing the OIC at the UN HR Council):
The meeting needs to hear from me. This is an unnecessary debate by a western organization. The Muslim world does not see this as a debate between freedom of expression and religion. We are opposed to misuse of freedom of expression and insults to religions. Equal tribute is being denied Muslims by Western double standards. Sanctimonious arrogance is showed by the West. There are several western countries with blasphemy laws: Austria, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Greece, Ireland, the Netherlands, Poland, Spain and Switzerland, The problem is apparent: West treats Muslims different than how it treats anti-Semitism and denial of Holocaust. Fact speak for itself. Before us we have the issue of minarets in Switzerland. Provocations made to show that Muslims resort to violence. The film Fitna compared the Quran to Hitler’s Mein Kampf. Ban on burkas and on mosques and burning of the Quran. Obama spoke out against burning of the Quran. Then he was asked if h was a Muslim. He denied that he is a Muslim – like being a Muslim is a crime. Even when you are a Muslim you are stripped at airports. The question is not of defamation of religions but about victimization of Muslims linked to terrorism. There are examples of terror in all religions. Promoting dialogue is just serving the cause of those who wants to promote greater dehumanization of Muslims
Pakistani woman comments the Pakistani ambassador (while he chooses to leave the room – curtailed by 3 – 4 other diplomats):
I’ve lived in the West for 25 years: Muslims have more freedom in west than in any of the Muslim countries. Freedom of speech: Geert Wilders doesn’t harm me. Western world was the first to condemn the burning of the Quran. I have not the same freedom to say what I say here in my county of birth. Let s get over the victimization of Muslims. Let’s get on to freedom of speech
About the tv-film in Egypt: It’s clear that this production has a political take. The government is in on this. I have not watched one of the programs. But from what I have heard are they clearly trying to demonize the Muslim brotherhood. But I would not try to sue the production. Some in my family are trying to do this. It is primarily a political game trying to destroy the image of the brotherhood. I’m not sure it’s working as intended.
About the Islamic center in New York: I have surprised many Muslims. I think Muslims must struggle for their rights. New American Muslims should learn from African Americans. Ground Zero is a symbolic place – Something hurt the nation. Many people struggle for rights. 20 Mosques now prevented from being built in the states. Symbolic sensitivity of Americans should make Muslims move it and to think about alternatives. An Abrahamic center: It would be good for Muslims to take the lead and make it more inclusive. Muslims must make a struggle with intelligence.
The Pakistani ambassador has spoken and then left the room: My point is to focus on the solution to this situation. Is that more laws? No. Say no to double standards. About the victimization of Muslims: There are citizens who are both Muslims and fully Europeans. I agree with the ambassador’s assessment of the situation -Not with his solution. I’m a western: Don’t speak about human rights as something western. We must have a balanced approach to this.
John Ralston Saul:
There are tensions around other groups as well. This will be worked out. Look at many companies in Western countries – Muslims everywhere. Being westernized means also that Muslims in the West are changing the West. The ambassador has not looked up PENs organization. PEN is an international organization with 145 centers in 104 countries.
Question from the audience:
We are dealing with a draft to craft a new norm on defamation of religions. People who are not satisfied can come to the committee to express their views. How should we otherwise handle these issues? The questions are: Is the new norm right? Is it a valid draft?
Comment from the US-representative:
There is a great deal of debate about these questions. The US shares the concerns. We have had struggles in our own history against incitement to hatred. These issues concerns both religious and political leaders. Recent weeks have showed that dialogue and open debate is the best way. Religious groups have reached out to the pastors. Many government leaders condemn the burning of the Quran. This is one man’s fear and ignorance. Obama has clearly stated that the idea behind the burning of holy scriptures is contrary to the values of this country.
Comment from Iranian woman:
Tariq Ramadan has not spoken about stoning. Women are tortured in name of Islam. Many Muslim women have the misfortune of being forced to wear the veil. France has now decided on laws against the veil. You must speak of misfortunes and problems in Muslim countries. There are cruel things that happen to women.
Comment from woman in the audience:
West – east – we are all responsible. I am more proud of my nationality. The religion is private. Why did we have to leave our country? We must make our countries a better place. The Iranian regime is behind torture, rape, execution, crimes and inhumanity in the name of Islam. The Pakistani ambassador is also the spokesperson for the Islamic countries. It is very rude to leave like this.
Comment from professor Alfred de Zayas, Swiss Italian PEN:
What in opinion legitimate limitations on freedom of expressions? Article 19 in the UN Declaration of Human Rights holds limitations to freedom of expression. In this discussion we must look at all the articles 18, 19 and 20, about freedom of religion, freedom of expression and incitement to hatred.
It is the wrong way to ask for more laws. I have said so both to Muslim NGOs and to the IOC; it is a wrong strategy.
USA: I would be cautious about people nurturing conflict. It’s done not only by ignorance. The Pastor in Florida and Geert Wilders and the journalists in Denmark – they are not ignorant people. They know exactly what they want to provoke. Some will win the next election. All are in danger of these people. Radically encountering these people – they know what they want to encounter. Not easy. Iran = not my topic. On my website there are articles about Iran imposing the headscarf. I think it’s wrong. I can’t enter my country of origin: Egypt or Saudi because of my opinions. Today I struggle against the victim mentality in Muslim communities. Muslims must not just blame the West. Discussion is part of the answer. I share many of the feelings expressed by the Pakistani ambassador. I do not deny it.
Alternative strategies are needed. What will be legitimate restrictions of freedom of expression? Issuing a new ban on defamation of religions as a new norm is not. This concept is a fraud. We can’t handle the difficult situation we are in now by new laws.
A ban on defamation of religions is a concept showed so defective on many fronts. We must look more in the direction of Human Rights Article 20 on Incitement to hatred, which is by far a better legal framework. But this is not enough. It distorts the picture to only look at legal measures. Again I would like to draw your attentions to the process in Kenya. Kenya has been in forefront in challenging the effects of incitement to hatred. Hate speech regulations today are to blunt. We must strengthen the knowledge of human rights, develop ethical journalism and better intra religious dialogue and guidelines for ethical conduct of members of parliament on these issues.