Islamic countries' "religious intolerance" move ignores oppression at home

Last month the Secretary-General of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) expressed alarm at the escalating intensity and popular appeal of anti-Islamic rhetoric from politicians in the USA and Europe. This critical issue has long acted as an animus for the OIC and, in December, the General Assembly of the United Nations passed a resolution titled, “Combating intolerance, negative stereotyping, stigmatisation, discrimination, incitement to violence, and violence against, persons based on religion or belief”.

This resolution, which was similarly accepted by the United Nations Human Rights Council last March, was sponsored by the OIC, the second largest inter-governmental organisation after the United Nations with a membership of 57 states spread over four continents. For more than a decade the OIC’s push for such an outcome has met with resistance from western states – in particular, the USA. These members of the General Assembly objected to the inclusion in the previous drafts of a provision that States should commit themselves to “combat the defamation of religion” (p. 355). It was, they argued, an affront to free speech. They reasoned that ideas and beliefs, such as religion, should not be afforded the same protection and rights as individuals.

The amended text put forward by the OIC, which urges efforts to face down prejudice and incitement to violence against religious believers, has been deemed acceptable by the Obama administration — mindful of the second amendment — and is perceived as a sign of progress by a number of human rights and secularist advocacy groups. The influential Human Rights First declared that the UN “tackle[d] religious intolerance without limiting free speech” and praised the resolution’s omission of the ‘the harmful concept of ‘defamation of religions'”.

The Center For Inquiry similarly congratulated the General Assembly for approving measures that both opposed incitement to violence and protected our right to “defame” (i.e. disagree with) religions, whilst worrying that the opacity of the language employed could be used to justify the persecution of dissidents and religious minorities.

The hopeful reactions of these organisations dwelt little on the resolution’s sponsor. In the words of UN Watch, the NGO which exists “to monitor the performance of the United Nations by the yardstick of its own charter”, “the problem is not with the document per se, but with its sponsor“.

It is often stated that the OIC has pushed this resolution so zealously in order to combat anti-Muslim and anti-Islamic feeling in the West since 9/11. Indeed, a quick glance through the OIC’s most recent “Observatory Report on Islamophobia” will reveal the focus is entirely upon the USA and Europe. It appropriately points to the radicalisation hearings of Congressman Peter King, the pointless torching of the Koran by Terry Jones, and countless acts of vandalism against Mosques. No doubt next year’s report will justifiably express grievances at the treatment and suspicion of New York’s Muslims at the hands of the NYPD, the Islamophobic statements of a Republican Presidential candidate, the thuggery of the English Defence League and, perhaps, the state-sponsored murder of Iranian scienticists.

But the important part of the resolution, which encourages the USA to make efforts to fight “incitement to violence, and violence against, persons based on religion or belief”, is much more likely to be adhered to in the US and Europe than in most of the OIC nations. There are scores of enforced laws and policies in western countries that prohibit multiple forms of discrimination against people based on numerous protected characteristics, including choice of religion. It is self-evident that an Ahmadi Muslim is safer and freer in Pennsylvania than Pakistan, and an Assyrian Christian in Italy than Iraq.

But it seems that the assorted countries of OIC do not prevent the persecution of religious believers or protect the right of an individual to practise their chosen religion very well.

In December, the House of Lords discussed the situation of Christians in the Middle East. The Archbishop of Canterbury described the “flow of Christian refugees from Iraq”. Lord Parekh noted that “there are 14 million Christians in the Middle East, which is roughly equal to the number of Muslims in the European Union. In recent years, they have been subjected to discrimination, harassment and violent attacks. We know all this.” Lord Turnberg quoted Andrew White, the Anglican “Vicar of Baghdad”, who said “the only place in the Middle East that Christians are really safe is Israel”.

A similar tale emerges from the pages of the most recent “World Watch List” compiled by Open Doors, a charity that works for and with the world’s persecuted Christians. The organisation asserts that the “focus is on persecution for their faith, not persecution for political, economic, social, ethnic or accidental reasons” and it has determined that this year nine of the top 10, and 38 of the top 50, countries where Christians face the “most severe” persecution are OIC members.

Last January, Indian migrant workers in Saudi Arabia (number three on the list) were accused of converting Muslims to Christianity and were subsequently arrested, interrogated and beaten. In the UAE (number 37), to convert from Islam is — speaking legally — to risk the death penalty and expatriate Christians who openly proselytise face arrest and deportation.

When Colonel Gaddafi’s tyrannical rule collapsed, David Gerbi, a Libyan Jew who went into exile in 1967,  returned home full of optimism and ready to restore the Dar al-Bishi synagogue in Tripoli. A rabble of bigots, however, lacked his nonpartisan solidarity, turning up at his hotel and protesting that “there is no place for Jews in Libya”. The National Transitional Council, which now represent Libya at the OIC and which Gerbi joined at the start of the uprising, has shown no sign yet that it will “recognise the valuable contribution of people of all religions” (as instructed by the UN resolution) in post-Gaddafi Libya.

The situation of Ahmadi Muslims, often considered heretics and non-Muslims, further demonstrates the problems that a number of OIC members have with enshrining the freedom to practise religion. Ahmadis are subjected to regular persecution in multiple forms, including murder, banning of publications, prohibited proselytising and vandalism of mosques, in countries including Indonesia, Pakistan and Egypt.

The picture is not much prettier with regards to other basic freedoms. According to Freedom House’s newest annual report on global political rights (participation in the political process, freedom to stand for office and to join parties etc) and civil liberties (freedom of expression, belief and association etc), only five OIC members and only one of any global significance —Indonesia — can be described as “free”. And even Indonesia has Suharto-era blasphemy laws.

So, what about freedom of the press? According to the most recent Press Freedom Index published annually by Reporters Without Borders, the OIC’s big players, Saudi Arabia (157th); Egypt (127th); UAE (87th) and Turkey (138th) are pretty tough environments for journalists.

What vision for entrenching religious freedom does the OIC leadership have? If, by defending “freedom of religion”, we mean protecting the individual’s right to practise a chosen religion, then many OIC states seemingly lack either the resources or the political will to apply this principle universally beyond the majority. It is more likely that the conservative governments of the OIC mean by “freedom of religion” the right to have their versions of state-sanctioned religion, namely Islam, unoffended and uncontested by impudent dissenters.

This is especially probable given that, although the “defamation” clause may have fallen out of the UN drafts early last year, the OIC’s “Ten-Year Programme of Action” from 2005 emphasises “the responsibility of the international community, including all governments, to ensure respect for all religions and combat their defamation”. Moreover, during the 2010 meeting of the Council of Foreign Ministers, the OIC adopted a strategy to broaden support for its Resolution on “Combating Defamation of religions”. This illiberal cause, it appears, is still explicitly on the agenda and, right on cue, the nasty implications of this attitude are made flesh in the latest phase of the Rushdie affair. Yet again zealots feel entitled and empowered to unilaterally declare ideas off limits — and, worse, to respond to “offence” with a punch, bomb or lawsuit, rather than debate.

This is not a sinister appeal for European and American Muslims to stop whining and to thank God for relative mercies. The whole matter should be quite simple, in principle. As long as the individual is protected and permitted to participate fully in society, every single idea is up for endorsement and desecration. It does not take an atheist to say it and to think it is right.

But, then again, perhaps the OIC and the UN are well suited. A Human Rights Council that counts Mauritania and Saudi Arabia amongst its members finds a natural bedfellow in a group that displays no shame as the representatives of Sudan and Iran scold the world for its religious intolerance.


William Clowes was an intern at Index on Censorship before he became a researcher in the Security Unit at Policy Exchange. He is currently writing in a personal capacity and writes sometimes for Think Africa Press