The UN Human Rights Council recently passed a Resolution on Religious Defamation. The main concern of the drafters of this resolution is islamophobia, defamation of Muslims, negative stereotyping of Muslims and Islam, and intolerance and discrimination against Muslims. The main targets are, obviously, western societies where, it is believed, “terrorism hysteria” has caused widespread anti-Muslim feelings.
Of course, no one should accept discrimination and intolerance, and even less islamophobic acts of violence. If there is discrimination and violence, then these human rights violations should be countered, wherever they occur, in the West and elsewhere. However, trying to outlaw defamation and stereotyping is a lot more controversial. While such acts are certainly not helpful in any circumstances, it’s not beyond doubt that they are harmful in themselves or that they are the single most important cause of more harmful acts, such as discrimination and violence.
For the proponents of the resolution, this is beyond doubt. Defamation, stereotyping, derogatory speech, blasphemy etc. are all believed to be harmful enough to justify limiting freedom of speech. The resolution clearly proposes such limits. It talks about
the need, in all societies, to show sensitivity and responsibility in treating issues of special significance for the adherents of any particular faith.
The “provocative or regrettable incidents” it mentions are clearly but not explicitly instances of speech rather than the very rare cases of actual violence and discrimination against western Muslims, namely the Danish Muhammad cartoons, the remarks by Pope Benedict, the Rushdie affair, the attempts of some to equate Islam with terrorism etc. The resolution urges
States to take actions to prohibit the dissemination of… material aimed at any religion or its followers that constitute incitement to racial and religious hatred, hostility or violence,
and says that
respect of religions and their protection from contempt is an essential element conducive for the exercise by all of the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.
So in these statements, there are two distinct attempts to justify limits on speech that defames and stereotypes Islam:
- The first justification is that such speech is hate speech and speech that incites violence and discrimination.
- The second is that it restricts the freedom of religion of its targets.
I dealt with the first one before, in this post (where I argued for a very limited possibility to restrict hate speech), so here I’ll focus on the second one. Of course, the second one can collapse into the first one, if the restriction of freedom of religion is supposed to follow from acts of violence that are caused by speech. Acts of violence can indeed restrict freedom of religion, but this argument isn’t valid in the case of Muslims in the West, who have only very rarely been subjected to islamophobic violence and who therefore cannot claim that hate speech and the resulting violence restrict their freedom of religion. If anything, Muslims have more religious freedom in the West than in many Muslim countries.
So something more is meant by the second justification of limits on freedom of speech. It’s not, however, clear what exactly is meant. I haven’t been able to find examples, given by proponents of the resolution, of ways in which speech can restrict an individual’s freedom of religion. These proponents don’t get any further than the general claim that freedom of religion requires laws against defamation, and most likely also blasphemy, and corresponding limitations of free speech.
The question here, of course, is whether freedom of speech can in any way restrict the freedom of religion. If that is the case, then a trade-off has to be made as in all cases in which different human rights come into conflict. But I don’t think that is the case. On the contrary. Freedom of speech is an essential safeguard for freedom of religion.
Now, let’s suppose that there exists, somewhere, a good argument linking defamatory speech and restrictions of freedom of religion, but that I’m just not aware of it (yet). The problem is that, even if defamatory speech can in some obscure way limit someone’s freedom of religion, it doesn’t necessarily follow that in such a case freedom of religion should automatically take precedence over freedom of speech. When two rights come into conflict, it’s often very difficult to decide which one has priority.
Another problem with this undiscovered argument is the vagueness of “defamatory”. Defamation, according to Wikipedia, means the following:
In law, defamation (also called calumny, libel (for written publications), slander (for spoken word), and vilification) is the communication of a statement that makes a claim, expressly stated or implied to be factual, that may give an individual, business, product, group, government or nation a negative image. It is usually, but not always, a requirement that this claim be false and that the publication is communicated to someone other than the person defamed (the claimant).
Defamation – also libel or slander – is the offense of bringing a person into undeserved disrepute by making false statements. (I already discussed the relationship between free speech and defamation or libel here).
This definition, however, doesn’t help a lot because it doesn’t make clear what is or is not supposed to be considered as defamatory. What is defamatory differs from one person to another. And this vagueness of the concept may have far-reaching consequences. Suppose we agree that there are good reasons to restrict defamatory speech for the sake of freedom of religion. Is it not likely that those who have to enforce these legal restrictions will be tempted to use them to stifle legitimate criticism of religion instead of real defamation? Where is the border between defamation and criticism? Or between defamation and alternative, non-official interpretations of a religion? I guess that there will be a rapid transition from concerns about religious freedom to their exact opposite, namely policies to punish heresy, blasphemy and apostasy, and to criminalize dissent in general. It’s not defamation of religion that harms but the measures taken to defend religions from defamation – or, better, the measures that are claimed to be taken in defense or religion, but more often than not are taken in defense of power.