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UN Human Rights Council gets it wrong: Prosecuting blasphemy won’t stop religious discord, but it will silence dissent

Council approves resolution calling for censorship in response to Quran burning.
Bangladeshi Muslims protested after prayer to protest against the desecration of Al Quran in Sweden

Sk Hasan Ali /

Bangladeshi Muslims in Dhaka protest against the burning of a Quran in Sweden on July 07, 2023.

Last month, two men stood outside a mosque in Stockholm and proceeded to tear pages out of a Quran and set the book on fire in front of a crowd of onlookers. The display led to protests outside the Swedish Embassy in Baghdad and demands from Iraqi authorities that Sweden strip citizenship from one of the men — reportedly an Iraqi immigrant — and send him to Iraq to be tried.

Controversies over provocative expression about and against Islam are, of course, nothing new. Readers likely remember well the Charlie Hebdo murders, the deadly backlash against the Jyllands-Posten cartoons, and the riots over previous Quran-burning attempts that preceded debates about “balancing” free speech and religious offense.

But what’s new about this latest dustup is the pro-censorship position the United Nations Human Rights Council has taken despite the Universal Declaration of Human Rights’ recognition that “[e]veryone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression.” 

A call to ‘prosecute’ anti-religious expression 

In a resolution approved last week, the council called on countries to “address, prevent and prosecute acts and advocacy of religious hatred” (emphasis added). The resolution isn’t binding, but will pressure governments to act in accordance with its recommendations. Twelve countries — including the United Kingdom, the United States, Germany, and France — opposed the resolution, citing free speech concerns. U.S. ambassador Michèle Taylor said she was “truly heartbroken” the council did not condemn “deplorable acts of anti-Muslim hatred, while also respecting freedom of expression.”

Countries supportive of the resolution — 28 in total — argue it is a necessary step to protect believers from hatred and attack. Pakistan’s envoy to the U.N., Khalil Hashmi, lamented that “some states have chosen to abdicate their responsibility to prevent and counter the scourge of religious hatred” and have provided only “lip service” to the world’s believers. 

“The opposition of a few in the room has emanated from their unwillingness to condemn the public desecration of the holy Qur’an,” Hashmi said. “They lack political, legal and moral courage.”

But a cursory review of the treatment of free expression and religious offense in many countries supportive of the resolution doesn’t paint a rosy picture where the feelings of believers are justly “balanced” against the rights of speakers. Instead of ostensibly eliminating religious hatred, laws targeting blasphemy and religious offense silence political and religious dissent and result in outrageous human rights violations — all while violence and discord persist. 

There are means to combat religious-based discrimination, hatred, and violence without violating fundamental human rights. It bodes ill for the world’s dissenters that the United Nations Human Rights Council disagrees.

Take Pakistan, for example, which doggedly criticized opponents of the U.N.’s resolution. One of seven countries maintaining the death sentence for blasphemy, Pakistan regularly implements some of the world’s strictest blasphemy laws and punishments. We’re only halfway into 2023 and Pakistani courts have already meted out multiple death sentences for blasphemy this year, and angry mobs have violently beaten to death multiple alleged blasphemers. Its laws are so prone to abuse that individuals frequently use blasphemy accusations as a cover to settle personal disputes completely unrelated to religion, hoping the law or the mob will punish their enemy for them. Pakistan even recently announced its intention to treat blasphemy allegations as terrorism cases. 

Such laws do not “counter the scourge of religious hatred.” Instead, they insulate religious figures and political leaders from critique, punish minority viewpoints and people suffering from mental illness, and encourage vigilantism by suggesting those who engage in blasphemy are indeed deserving of death.

The reality of prosecuting blasphemy

Well-intentioned supporters of regulations governing blasphemy or religious offense may be under the impression they simply target provocateurs who are perceived as powerful figures who “punch down” or seek to cause offense and hurt. But that betrays a misunderstanding of how such laws operate in practice. As I wrote last year in the aftermath of the violent attack on Salman Rushdie, these laws and norms do not protect the “powerless” from the “powerful”:

In reality, the victims of blasphemy-related violence and prosecution are rarely French cartoonists or award-winning novelists living in the United States. Most of the victims are religious minorities, political dissidents, LGBT activists, teachers, students, secularists, artists, feminists, lawyers, children, and otherwise non-famous individuals (sometimes falsely) accused of insulting or offending religious figures or groups. 

Punishment and prosecution will not eliminate “religious hatred,” despite what the Human Rights Council may imply. But it will offer governments yet another opportunity to silence inconvenient or unpopular groups, individuals, and ideologies.

The resolution’s call to prosecute “acts and advocacy of religious hatred” also exposes a difficult and fundamental question: What, exactly, is an act of religious hatred? 

Is it women burning headscarves in support of Iranian protesters decrying the death of Mahsa Amina, who died after being arrested by morality police for incorrectly wearing her headscarf? What if a victim of abuse chose to tear up a Bible outside of a Catholic Church in Springfield, Baltimore, or Philadelphia, where parishes face accusations of sexual abuse and coverups? 

Adam Duker American University Cairo AUC

Professor who fled Egypt over censorship at American University in Cairo: ‘There’s still an accounting that needs to take place’

To some, these examples represent necessary advocacy for justice and courageous protest. To others, they exemplify hatred for religious believers and inexcusable disrespect of religious items. 

Who gets to decide which criticism of religion crosses the line from valid protest to punishable insult? Every reader of this piece likely puts the marker at a different spot on the spectrum, and wouldn’t like being legally bound by another’s line-drawing.

Governments can, of course, craft content- and viewpoint-neutral regulations that incidentally limit the expressive burning of materials to ensure public safety is protected. But those regulations should not be concerned with protecting feelings or faiths.

Expression can both deeply offend and merit protection. Ample evidence exists showing that policing blasphemy and religious offense is unworkable and destructive, silencing valuable discourse, failing to stem hatred, and providing cover for political and religious leaders. 

There are means to combat religious-based discrimination, hatred, and violence without violating fundamental human rights. It bodes ill for the world’s dissenters that the United Nations Human Rights Council disagrees.

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