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Criminalizing Religious Criticism: UN Resolution Threatens Freedom of Speech

Kristin Wright | Open Doors USA | Saturday, January 14, 2012

Criminalizing Religious Criticism: UN Resolution Threatens Freedom of Speech

A new resolution introduced at the United Nations Human Rights Council has free speech advocates concerned about a potential backlash against religious minority groups. Previously introduced as Resolution 62/154, “Combating defamation of religion,” the piece was originally written to criminalize the criticism of religion. Advocates worried that the resolution would, at best, limit freedom of speech, and at worst, jeopardize religious minorities in countries carrying heavy punishments for blasphemy and apostasy.

Recently the piece has morphed into Resolution 16/18, the goal of which is “combating intolerance, negative stereotyping, and stigmatization of, and discrimination, incitement to violence and violence against, persons based upon religion or belief.”

But in spite of the seemingly benign language, free speech advocates say there is still cause for concern. According to Jay Sekulow of the American Center for Law and Justice, in some Islamic countries, particularly those with harsh penalties for apostasy and blasphemy, it often doesn't take much for religious minorities to incite extremist rage. "Just the building of churches ... having a cross outside your door can be inciting violence," Sekulow says. "So if you let them define these definitions when there is no problem coming from the minority faiths, this is somehow going to 'green-light' their suppression," he explains.

Advocates point to the case of Asia Bibi, a wife and mother who awaits death by hanging in Pakistan after being charged with blasphemy. During a dispute over drinking water, Bibi's Muslim co-workers accused the Christian woman of insulting the Prophet Mohammed – charges that led to her conviction of blasphemy in a Pakistani court. Religious freedom advocates say that religious minorities often bear the brunt of persecution under blasphemy codes in Islamic countries. In Pakistan, Christians, Hindus and other religious minorities comprise only 3 percent of the population of 180 million.

Those opposing the resolution say that the countries most heavily lobbying for its passage are those with less than ideal track records for freedom of speech or religious diversity. Jordan Sekulow, Director of Policy and International Operations for the American Center for Law and Justice, says that the countries pushing this resolution are countries whose “populations are 90 to 99 percent one single religious group.” He is concerned that religious minorities in these predominately Muslim countries already face some forms of persecution, and that the passage of this resolution might serve to increase persecution against minority groups. "What is the problem here with the 1 percent speaking out and why is that such an issue that needs to be handled at the international level?" he asks.

The Organization of the Islamic Cooperation (OIC) is backing the resolution. Frank Gaffney, president of the American Center for Security Policy, questions the group's goals for the resolution, accusing the group of attempting to promote Sharia, Islamic law, through the passage of the resolution. "It is 57 states and Palestine that have come together to promote what is fundamentally the agenda that is known as Sharia," he says.

In a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Jay Sekulow, Chief Counsel at American Center for Law and Justice, as well as Robert Ash, Senior Litigation Counsel for National Security Law, and CeCe Heil, Senior Counsel at ACLJ, suggested that the wording for the resolution might jeopardize members of minority faiths already at risk in predominately Islamic nations.

“Although Resolution 16/18 appears to be a significant improvement over Resolution 62/154, entitled 'Combating defamation of religions,' which sought to protect Islam at the expense of other religions, the ACLJ has serious lingering concerns about certain language in the new Resolution,” Jay Sekulow wrote.

Sekulow says that paragraphs 2, 3, and 5(e) and (g) of the Resolution hold serious ramifications for religious minorities in Islamic countries with blasphemy laws, such as Pakistan. He says that these paragraphs “'condemn 'mere advocacy of religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination or hostility,' even if no violent action or threat of violence occurs.” Sekulow says that this language could enable countries with blasphemy codes to to “proscribe the right to freely express one's ideas and criticisms of religions, or disagreements with people belonging to certain religions.”

He points to international legal norms which “protect individual's rights to express their views about the tenets and application of another's faith with which they disagree.” Sekulow and other advocates argue that freedom of expression must be protected, even if it involves offending someone of another faith. They contend that a verbal insult, as in the case of Asia Bibi, should not send a woman to prison or to the gallows, under any circumstances.

However offensive, Sekulow argues, critical religious expression is protected under international law and must remain so. “Mere negative projection or stereotyping, without imminent threat of violence, must not be criminally or civilly actionable; otherwise, free expression would ultimately be censored,” he says.

Free speech advocates admit that the resolution sounds innocuous, even beneficial. But that doesn't mean it is. “As with so many UN initiatives, the goal sounds laudable,” Nathanael Bennett of ACLJ says, “but the complications are in the details.”

In conclusion, Jay Sekulow and the American Center for Law and Justice recommend that the United States representatives at the UN Human Rights Council “endeavor to make the Resolution's language consistent with international norms, protecting the freedom of expression.”


United Nations Human Rights Council

American Center for Law & Justice

Center for Religious Freedom

Center for Security Policy

Kristin Butler is a contributing writer at, where she covers topics related to human rights, international travel, social justice, women's issues, religious freedom, and refugee resettlement. For further articles, visit her website at or email [email protected].

Publication date: January 14, 2012

Criminalizing Religious Criticism: UN Resolution Threatens Freedom of Speech