Patrick Goodenough | International Editor | Thursday, March 13, 2008
The Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) on Thursday began a meeting in Senegal, with the shadow of Danish cartoons satirizing Mohammed and a Dutch lawmaker's film criticizing the Koran hanging heavily over the gathering.
The 57-member bloc is considering a report by a new body set up to monitor instances of what many Muslims view as growing prejudice against them and their religion, particularly in the years since 9/11.
Warning that Islamophobia poses a threat to global peace and security, the 58-page report by the "Islamophobia Observatory" examines the reasons for the perceived trend -- exemplified by stereotyping, hostility, discriminatory treatment and the denigration of "the most sacred symbols of Islam" -- and suggests ways to combat it.
The recommended steps include a range of responses, including monitoring of and responding to incidents, and a campaign to show Islam to be a "moderate, peaceful and tolerant" religion.
But the report also says that legal measures are required.
"There is a need for a binding legal instrument to fight the menace of Islamophobia in the context of freedom of religion and elimination of religious intolerance," it says.
"The Islamophobes remain free to carry on their assaults due to absence of legal measures necessary for misusing or abusing the right to freedom of expression."
Islamic states must therefore keep "the pressure on the international community at the multilateral forums and bilateral agendas," the OIC report recommends.
Since the uproar over the Mohammed cartoons in 2006, the OIC has stepped up its attempts in international forums to protect Islam against criticism. Late last year it succeeded in getting the U.N. General Assembly to pass a first-ever resolution on the "defamation of religions." Islam was the only religion mentioned by name in the text.
The OIC has 56 votes at the 192-member General Assembly, but it managed to win sufficient support from non-Muslim nations, mostly in the developing world, to see the resolution pass by 108 votes to 51, with 25 abstentions.
'Sheer weight of numbers'
As the U.N. prepares later this year to mark the 60th anniversary of the landmark Universal Declaration of Human Rights, some observers worry about the growing clout of the Islamic bloc, and its agenda.
In a statement delivered to the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva on Wednesday, the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU), a non-governmental organization with consultative status at the U.N., voiced concerns about the OIC push.
"The implications of this [defamation of religions] resolution for freedom to criticize religious laws and practices are obvious," the IHEU said.
"Armed with U.N. approval for their actions, states may now legislate against any show of disrespect for religion however they may choose to define 'disrespect.'"
"The Islamic states see human rights exclusively in Islamic terms, and by sheer weight of numbers this view is becoming dominant within the U.N. system," the organization added. "The implications for the universality of human rights are ominous."
The IHEU and others are uneasy about an OIC plan, first raised at a 2005 summit in Mecca, to draft an Islamic Charter of Human Rights.
In a statement last December, OIC Secretary-General Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu indicated that there were areas of concern to Muslims that weren't sufficiently covered by existing international instruments.
"The rising phenomena of Islamophobia and other forms of religious intolerance, defamation, and demonization of religious references and symbols, should be fully and firmly addressed to preserve peace, stability, and common understanding in our world," he said.
Against that background, the OIC was looking into setting up an independent permanent body "to elaborate an OIC Charter on Human Rights," Ihsanoglu said.
The charter would be in accordance with the provisions of the 1990 Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam - the last major OIC human rights document - which says that all human rights and freedom must be subject to Islamic law (shari'a).
"Everyone shall have the right to express his opinion freely in such manner as would not be contrary to the principles of the shari'a," it says.
While information is necessary for society, the declaration says, "it may not be exploited or misused in such a way as may violate sanctities and the dignity of prophets, undermine moral and ethical values or disintegrate, corrupt or harm society or weaken its faith."
'Free speech limitations are meant to protect individuals, not religions'
The question of free speech and its effect on religious sentiment has been on the Human Rights Council's agenda this week.
On Wednesday, the council considered a report by a U.N. "special rapporteur" on freedom of expression and opinion, Kenyan lawyer Ambeyi Ligabo.
Ligabo said he was concerned about attempts to expand the scope of defamation laws beyond the protection of individuals, to include the protection of "abstract values or institutions" such as religions.
Where international human rights documents placed limitations on freedom of expression, he told the council, they were designed to protect individuals -- not religions -- from criticism.
Ligabo also said he "strongly rejected" the view that the use of freedom of expression has undermined people's ability to enjoy other rights, such as the freedom of religion.
His stance drew criticism from some Islamic states in the council.
Iranian representative Asadollah Eshragh Jahromi said Ligabo should address the issue of freedom of expression and religion "in a more balanced and comprehensive manner."
"Insulting religions is incompatible with the right to freedom of expression and cannot be justified or interpreted under such a pretext," he said.
"When someone defames a religion or religious personalities or symbols, he hurts the believers of that faith and impinges on his exercise of right to religion and belief," said the representative of Bangladesh, Mustafizur Rahman.
The OIC and its allies effectively dominate the Human Rights Council, where 26 of the 47 seats are earmarked for African and Asian countries.
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