UN Must Reject Criminalization of Religious Expression, Declares International Secular Group

For Immediate Release: September 18, 2012
Contact: Paul Fidalgo, Communications Director
press@centerforinquiry.org - (207) 358-9785

Calls for the UN to enact binding resolutions to protect religious feelings now coming from prominent world leaders and religious figures are dangerous and misguided, warned the Center for Inquiry (CFI) — an international secular advocacy organization. CFI also declared that suppressing the freedom of expression when religion is concerned is an intolerable abrogation of basic human rights.

In the wake of violence and angry protests across the Muslim world, ostensibly in response to a grotesque Internet video caricature of the prophet Muhammad, prominent world figures, including the Turkish prime minister, have asserted a need for international regulations curtailing the freedom of speech in the case of criticism or mockery of religion. Prime Minister Erdoğan, who will speak to the UN General Assembly on September 25, told reporters, “Freedom of thought and belief ends where the freedom of thought and belief of others start,” and called for further restrictions on speech critical of religion within his own country.

Meanwhile, Ahmed el-Tayeb, Egypt’s Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar — perhaps Sunni Islam’s highest legal authority — specifically called upon UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to criminalize blasphemy against Islam, and for punishment of those responsible for the incendiary video. 

“Let us not go down this path, a path that inevitably leads to the persecution and demonization of individuals for their beliefs — or lack of beliefs — about religion,” said Ronald A. Lindsay, president and CEO of the Center for Inquiry. “Free expression is a fundamental human right. Too many are already sitting in jail, or have been injured, terrorized, or killed for exercising that right. It’s bad enough that these ‘blasphemy laws’ exist at all, anywhere in the world. To enact them on a global scale would represent a huge step backward for human rights.”

International laws against blasphemy have been lobbied for at the UN in various forms, mainly by the 57-member Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (formerly the Organisation of the Islamic Conference), since 1999. While no binding resolutions have ever passed the General Assembly, resolutions generally condemning “defamation of religions” have passed the body, and on September 14 of this year, the UN’s Human Rights Commissioner Navi Pillay asserted in a statement that there exists a “legal framework” to give states “the possibility to impose restrictions that are provided by law and which are necessary for the respect of the rights and reputations of others.”

“Several important international agreements — such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights — protect actual human beings from abuse and discrimination,” said Michael De Dora, CFI’s special representative to the UN. “But there is no reason to extend protections to beliefs, the reputations of figures dead for millennia, or the feelings of religious believers. Neither beliefs nor the dead can be insulted, and one’s subjective feelings do not make a sound basis for international law.”

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The Center for Inquiry (CFI) is a nonprofit educational, advocacy, and research organization headquartered in Amherst, New York, with executive offices in Washington, D.C. It is also home to the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason & Science, the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, and the Council for Secular Humanism. The Center for Inquiry strives to foster a secular society based on reason, science, freedom of inquiry, and humanist values. Visit CFI on the web at centerforinquiry.org.