It became an iconic image: a book by an award-winning writer burned on the streets of Britain. In September 1988, Salman Rushdie published his novel The Satanic Verses, which contained an irreverent alternative life of the Prophet Muhammad. While literary critics debated its artistic merits, elsewhere a storm was gathering. Many Muslims felt deeply affronted by what they saw as an assault on their faith and, in January 1989, some took to the streets in Bradford to demonstrate, culminating in the now notorious book-burning.
Even worse was to follow the month after, when the leader of the Iranian revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini, issued his fatwa, calling for the author’s head and forcing Rushdie into hiding. The growing conflict between the right to freedom of expression and the sensitivities of religious believers that became apparent 20 years ago will come to a head next month at the United Nations’ conference on human rights in Geneva. The event has proved contentious enough amid fears that it will degenerate into the anti-Zionist jamboree of the Durban conference in 2001. But what also disturbs Western governments is the demand for international action against “defamation of religion”.
Leading the anti-defamation lobby is the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, representative of 56 states. The latest draft of the resolutions for Geneva calls for states to recognise that “national laws alone cannot deal with the issue of defamation of religions” and to take “firm action against negative stereotyping of religions and defamation of religious personalities, holy books, scriptures and symbols”.
It would, in short, be a kind of blasphemy law run riot. Defamation of religion is different from incitement to religious hatred controversially outlawed in the UK in 2007. The new incitement law was introduced to give similar protection to Muslims, Hindus and others (in theory atheists, too) as already given to Jews and Sikhs under laws against racial hatred.
Whereas calling Jews or Muslims child abusers could land you before the courts for incitement, it is not an offence to say, as does Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion, that teaching Judaism or Islam or Christianity to children is a form of abuse.
But it could well be under a defamation ban. Although it is improbable that the UK would enact such a law, the risk is that an author like Rushdie travelling abroad could be arrested and face extradition proceedings to a country that does have one. The threat is not “merely hypothetical”, warned Marc Stern, co-executor director of the American Jewish Congress, in a recent article.
“A private group in Jordan (where private parties may initiate criminal prosecutions) is seeking the extradition of the Danish cartoonist and publishers of the Muhammad cartoons to stand trial in Jordan for defaming Islam.” The anti-defamation campaign also worries Sarah Kaiser, director of RenéCassin, the Jewish human rights group due to take part in the Geneva conference. “It’s a shift of understanding of human rights from the individual to a group,” she said.
“Human rights are to make sure that all individuals are equally protected and respected. This would give a right to an idea and give an idea preference over individuals.” If the campaign succeeds, it would “add defamation of religion to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The declaration is not binding but it would lend the principle great moral weight.”
Expect then to see “more cases like the teddy-bear incident in Sudan” when a visiting British teacher was convicted for naming the class mascot Muhammad. She also warns that some countries may use defamation to “suppress the freedom of minorities to practise religions” not approved by the state. Eritrea, for example, has allowed only four religious denominations the protection of official registration.
“There’s a difference between defamation of religion, and someone making up a lie about a religion like the blood libel against Jews, or saying that all Islam supports terrorism, which can be used to incite hatred,” she said. “It should be acceptable to say you don’t believe that Jesus is the Messiah, or that the Torah was not written by God. You shouldn’t treat religions with cotton-wool.”
Religious defamation: A rabbi’s view
Censorship is a dangerous road full of slippery slopes. Who will define the terms — blasphemy, defamation, “projecting negative, insulting and derogatory images of religions and religious personalities”?
What is one going to do with clearly derogatory phrases that project “negative images” in one religion’s scriptures about another religion, eg anti-Jewish comments and stereotypes in New Testament and Koran; or from one denomination against another denomination, eg Roman Catholic v various Protestant churches, Sunni v Shia, Orthodox Judaism v Reform/Masorti/Liberal? Or religions “projecting negative images” against the “faith” of agnostics and atheists?
Every faith community must reject the others as erroneous, false, idolatrous, blasphemous, if and when it claims to be the guardian of the “real truth” . Why should “religions” have this special protection, as opposed to certain professions — lawyers or funeral directors — or followers of alternate lifestyles? Let’s not forget that all jokes and satires are somehow “derogatory” of someone or something: is humour and satire to be outlawed? Are we going to outlaw the teaching of critical philosophy when it offers critiques against religion, theology, and faith-founded arguments? Or censure the various sciences that propagate theories which stand in direct conflict with many religious beliefs?
If a religion feels threatened by satire or attempted refutations, it is itself on very shaky ground. Defamation is obviously different from incitement of racism, racial discrimination and sanctioned intolerance — where there is active interference with the equal rights, liberty and opportunities of another. The suggestions of the proposed “human rights declaration” of Durban II amount to nothing less than imposing a fascist dictatorship of a small group of clerics — which cannot possibly agree with other clerics holding differing beliefs — with vested interests.
This is not “human rights” — for the benefit of mankind as a whole — but one group’s demand for its own privileges and benefits.