UN ‘Religious Defamation’ Decree Poses Threats, Panel Says
Ezra Levant’s offense was republishing in early 2006 editorial cartoons of Mohammed, the prophet of Islam, which initially had sparked riots after a Danish newspaper first published them in September 2005.
The cartoons were published in Levant’s magazine The Western Standard in the context of a news story explaining the controversy, Levant said. But then numerous Canadian Muslim clerics filed complaints against him with the Alberta Human Rights Commission, and Levant has spent the last two-and-a-half years dealing with legal matters.
Levant spoke at a panel Friday in Washington, D.C., sponsored by the Congressional Human Rights Caucus Task Force on International Religious Freedom, which was convened to discuss resolutions at the United Nations against the defamation of religion.
Resolutions, pushed largely by Muslim countries, were passed by the General Assembly last December and by the U.N. Human Rights Council in March.
“This is a soft jihad. It’s law-fare,” Levant said. “It could be a greater threat to our civil liberties than hard jihad.”
Explaining why the U.N. resolution could be a problem, Sandra Bunn-Livingstone, former director of Multilateral and European Affairs at the U.S. State Department, warned, “You’re taking state apostasy and anti-conversion law at the local level, and you’re internationalizing it.”
She stressed that the existing U.N. International Declaration of Human Rights includes freedom of religion and freedom of opinion, which religious defamation laws could infringe upon.
“The way to defend against defamation is truth,” said Bunn-Livinstone, now the executive director of Human Dignity International, a human rights group. “Religion is belief, an opinion,” she said.
“The Koran says Jesus was only a prophet. That could defame Christianity. The Bible says Jesus is the son of God. That could defame Jews. The Torah says the messiah hasn’t come yet. That could defame Christians,” she added.
However, “Islamaphobia” is a growing problem in several countries, said Mudassir Tipu, representing the Pakistan Embassy. She spoke strongly in favor of the U.N. resolution against religious defamation.
“We believe the U.N. resolution is a safety valve against violence and anarchy,” Tipu said. “We do not support the resolution because of any religious orthodoxy but because we believe that it promotes enlightenment and respect.”
Quoting from the resolution, she said it seeks to “strengthen the role of the inter-religious and intercultural dialogue” and balances “the defense of secularism and respect for freedom of religion.”
“Publication of sacrilegious caricature and sketches of the prophet Muhammad, as well as far right conservative campaigns against mosques and against the so-called Eurabia and Islamization of Europe are sowing seeds of discord,” Tipu said.
The real question may be if religion can be defamed, said Angela Wu, acting executive director at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a conservative group.
“Defamation typically protects an individual from untrue statements,” Wu said. “Defamation of religion protects an idea, and the state becomes the arbiter of the ideas that can be accepted in the public square. The state would determine what is good theology and bad theology is.”
Wu added, “We don’t want juris prudence of hurt feelings.”
Levant said he expects to win all of the suits against him, but at great cost, which will cause a chilling effect for other news media. He said he faced a 90-minute hearing from the human rights body in Alberta.
He cited other Canadian cases: a gag order was imposed on a pastor for criticizing homosexuality, and an 80-year-old man was put in jail for refusing to change an anti-Semitic message on his answering machine.
While Levant stressed he is repulsed by anti-Semitism, he doesn’t believe such government action was warranted.
He further warned that what happens in Canada could happen in the United States.
“Despite the First Amendment, human rights commissions are popping up all over,” Levant said. “The Philadelphia human rights council prosecuted Gino’s Steakhouse because the steakhouse said you have to order in English. Whether you agree with that or not, it’s a steakhouse today. It’s a newsmagazine tomorrow.”