Islamic States Reproach UN Human Rights Expert Over Islam-Violence Link

Patrick Goodenough | March 12, 2015 | 4:40am EDT
Font Size

Heiner Bielefeldt, U.N. special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief. (UN Photo/Paulo Filgueiras)

( – A U.N. human rights expert unsettled some delegates when he delivered a report to the Human Rights Council this week on “violence in the name of religion,” prompting several Islamic countries’ representatives to reproach him for not being more emphatic in separating terrorism from Islam.

In his report, Heiner Bielefeldt examined what he called “root causes, factors and political circumstances” of the problem, beginning with “narrow-minded interpretations of religion.” (Others included “loss of trust in public institutions” and “policies of exclusion.”)

Although the 23-page report did not once use the term Islam or Islamic (except in two footnotes, one referring to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, ISIS, and the other to Islamic Relief Worldwide), it dealt in some depth with issues and phenomena often associated with Islamic actors, including:

--extrajudicial executions (“ ‘archaic’ acts of cruelty seem to be cynically ‘staged’ in order to cater to modern media voyeurism”) – a clear reference to filmed ISIS beheadings;

--“mass expulsions, enslavement or systematic destruction of certain communities”;

--disproportionate targeting of “religious dissidents, members of religious minorities or converts”;

-- attacks against women “whose ways of life are deemed ‘immoral’ from the standpoint of certain narrowly defined religious codes of conduct”;

--Honor killings, forced conversions and forced marriage;

“Acts of violence in the name of religion frequently target individuals or groups branded as infidels, apostates, heretics or blasphemous,” Bielefeldt told the HRC. “The likelihood of violent attacks typically increases sharply when such ‘offenses’ are enshrined in criminal codes.”

Those who speak out against the abuse of religion to justify violence are themselves at risk of being accused of betrayal or blasphemy, he said.

After the presentation by Bielefeldt – a German professor of human rights who serves as the council’s “special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief” – numerous countries’ delegates responded to his report and remarks, with some pushing back against the inferred focus on Islam.

“My delegation says that Islam is innocent of all violence and terrorism practiced in the name of religion,” said Saudi representative Khaled al-Manzlawiy.

Referring to an appeal in the report for governments to issue quick and unequivocal condemnations of acts of violence perpetrated in the name of religion, he said the king of Saudi Arabia had done precisely that in a speech last February, and said Bielefeldt should be “guided” by that.

Pointing to a recommendation in the report for countries to repeal blasphemy, anti-conversion and other discriminatory laws, including those based on religious law, al-Manzlawiy said the kingdom “refuses all these recommendations and it’s not acceptable.”

“Islam is our constitution,” he said. “My delegation believes that the special rapporteur through the recommendations he has made has gone beyond his mandate.”

Qatar’s envoy said religion-based violence had nothing to do with religion and called on Bielefeldt to address its root causes in his next report.

Pakistan’s Afaq Ahmad, speaking on behalf of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), said the report “highlights that various forms of violence carried out in the name of religion typically originate from contemporary factors and actors, including political circumstances.”

Egypt’s Mohammed Elshahed said his government had expected the report to pay more attention to the fact that acts of violence cannot be attributed solely to religion.

“These are acts committed by persons for personal purposes,” he said.

Elshahed also complained that the report had not dealt with “the insults and infringement of religions as a cause of violence” or to “incitement to religious hatred, which leads to acts of violence.”

Responding to the feedback, Bielefeldt said “some delegations have indicated that violence, acts of terrorism, other forms of violence, have nothing whatsoever to do with religion. This is a position which I do not endorse.”

He said there was clearly a link, although he intentionally refers to the problem as “violence in the name of religion” rather than “violence on the basis of religion.”

The motives of those carrying out acts of violence “may also be religious motives, and that’s why religious communities also have the responsibility to come up with profound theological responses,” Bielefeldt contended. “It’s not something that we can merely attribute to political factors.”

mrc merch