Combating Religious Intolerance: What Works

Last week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton traveled to Turkey to meet with the head of the Organization of the Islamic Cooperation (OIC). Secretary Clinton used the occasion to discuss implementation of resolution 1618 on combating religious intolerance, adopted by consensus at the U.N. Human Rights Council meeting in March. The resolution was an important shift from efforts to prohibit “defamation of religions”—in essence an international blasphemy code. The OIC had for the past decade supported such efforts, which have had serious consequences for fundamental rights to freedom of expression and belief. In March, OIC and other nations abandoned the polarizing language, instead working out a consensus resolution that focused on the rights of individuals, including Muslims, to be free from violence, discrimination and other forms of intolerance based on religious intolerance. Human Rights First attended the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva when the resolution was passed, and invited Shehrbano Taseer, the daughter of the slain Punjab (Pakistan) Governor Salman Taseer, to accompany us for meetings with U.N. delegates to whom we explained the human consequences of the “defamation of religions” concept and its application at the national level in the form of blasphemy laws. It was Governor Taseer’s courageous opposition to those laws that lead to his assassination. Human Rights First has identified scores of similar cases that provide ample warning of the misuse of blasphemy laws at the national level. The studyBlasphemy Laws Exposed, documents over 70 such cases in 15 countries where the enforcement of blasphemy laws have resulted in death sentences and long prison terms as well as arbitrary detentions, and have sparked assaults, murders, and mob attacks. Listen to FirstCast addressing the misuse of blasphemy laws in Pakistan and Human Rights First’s partnership with Shehrbano Taseer to combat a global blasphemy code. Speaking of Resolution 1618, Clinton summed it up as follows:

“The resolution calls upon states to protect freedom of religion, to counter offensive expression through education, interfaith dialogue, and public debate, and to prohibit discrimination, profiling, and hate crimes, but not to criminalize speech unless there is an incitement to imminent violence.”

There is no doubt that legal developments and practices will be a part of efforts to combat religious intolerance. Violent hate crime attacks against anybody because of their identity must be vigorously investigated and prosecuted. Instances of discrimination—e.g., in the workplace—must be challenged in the court room. Hateful speech that crosses a threshold into imminent incitement to violence is also a violation of the law in most countries, including in the USA. But criminal justice can be a blunt instrument and there are other more effective tools to combat hateful rhetoric than can have a more lasting impact and don’t tarnish our respect for free speech. In a recent Huffpost Religion blog, John Esposito and Sheila Lalwani reference efforts in the United States to combat hatred without criminalizing speech:

The issue of freedom of speech and the rights of hate groups is not new in American history. Even today, the Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazi and antisemitic organizations are allowed to express their disdain for certain ethnic and religious groups, regardless of how distasteful their ideologies may be. However, their power to attack has greatly diminished and their words have become a social taboo in the public square because our country has created a social environment where racism and antisemitism are loudly condemned and discredited in public life and in media. Muslim Americans and Europeans are entitled to the same treatment, rights and protections.

Of course, “Muslim Americans and Europeans are entitled to the same treatment, rights, and protections” as other groups. To address similar challenges in the past, the United States “has created a social environment where racism and antisemitism are loudly condemned and discredited in public life and in media.” This has been done while the First Amendment has protected offensive racist and antisemitic speech. Setting in motion similar practices to ensure that Muslim Americans have those same protections is a challenging process. There is no doubt that when it comes to tolerance of Muslims in the United States, the state of the political debate is far from perfect—Esposito & Lalwani are correct about this, too. Yet, intolerant views are being challenged—not in the courts, but in the public square—the place where those debates belong. In 2010, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg firmly stood with the Muslim community when he explained to the city, and the nation, the ABCs of religious freedom. This year, after Congressman Peter King (R-N.Y.) called for the controversial (possibly misguided and counterproductive) hearings on Islamic radicalization, Senator Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) responded by hosting a first-ever congressional evaluation of the civil rights of Muslims. Civil society plays an important role in helping set the tone of political discourse. Last year, in response to a fringe pastor’s attempts to burn a copy of the Koran, the outpouring of interfaith opposition sent a strong counter-message. In another more recent example, Human Rights First teamed up with Interfaith Alliance to bring interreligious services to dozens of venues across the U.S.—starting at Washington National Cathedral. We saw that religious communities can and do stand together in their desire to live and worship alongside one another. The Faith Shared project is a model for strengthening cultural and working ties between and among faith communities. Ensuring effective political and civil responses to hateful rhetoric takes continual effort and cooperation across political lines and communities. Yet such efforts give life to the spirit of the U.N. Human Rights Council Resolution 1618 and will play an important role in illustrating that we need not roll back freedom of expression in order to combat religious intolerance. These are the messages Human Rights First will continue to make as UN states renew debates on these issues at the General Assembly in a few months.

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Published on July 20, 2011

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