Religious Tolerance Resolution Backed by Obama Administration Aligns With Islamic Bloc’s Interests

Patrick Goodenough | December 16, 2011 | 12:22am EST
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Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) leaders meet in Mecca in December 2005. The bloc has promoted its campaign against "religious defamation" for more than a decade. (Photo: OIC)

( – The head of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) has acknowledged that a U.N. religious tolerance resolution heavily promoted by the Obama administration has the same aims as the Islamic bloc’s annual “religious defamation” resolutions, which Western democracies have consistently opposed for more than a decade.

The State Department this week hosted three days of talks with foreign governments and international organizations, including the OIC, on implementing “resolution 16/18,” a measure adopted “by consensus” – without a vote – at the U.N. Human Rights Council last March and set to be endorsed by the full U.N. General Assembly within days.

The resolution, formally entitled “combating intolerance, negative stereotyping and stigmatization of, and discrimination, incitement to violence and violence against persons based on religion or belief,” has been championed by the administration – and some human rights advocacy groups – as a historic achievement, in that it supposedly seeks a balance between freedom of religion and freedom of expression.

It was hailed as a shift away from earlier “defamation of Islam” (later changed to “defamation of religion”) resolutions introduced by the OIC, and duly voted through each year at both the Human Rights Council and the General Assembly – in recent years, by steadily smaller margins.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Wednesday told the closing session of the meeting at the State Department that the adoption of resolution 16/18 had “ended 10 years of divisive debate where people were not listening to each other anymore.”

Critics have been doubtful about the OIC’s sincerity, however, noting the top priority it has given to the drive to curb speech and actions which it views as insulting to Islam – ranging from the Mohammed cartoons and threats to burn the Qur’an to anti-shari’a campaigns  and post-9/11 security profiling.

In remarks delivered on his behalf to the State Department meeting – released by the OIC after the closed-door talks ended – OIC secretary-general Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu made it clear that, for the bloc of 57 Islamic states, the goal remains the same.

Passage of resolution 16/18, he said, “clearly demonstrated that, as a mature international organization, OIC was not wedded to either a particular title or the content of a resolution,” Ihsanoglu continued. “We just wanted to ensure that the actual matter of vital concern and interest to OIC member states was addressed.

He went on to commend the role played by the Obama administration: “I particularly appreciate the kind personal interest of Secretary Clinton and the role played by the U.S. towards the consensual adoption of the resolution.”

Ihsanoglu said it was now vital to ensure the resolution was implemented.

“The adoption of the resolution does not mark the end of the road. It rather signifies a beginning based on a new approach to deal with the whole set of interrelated issues. The success of the alternative approach contained in the resolution 16/18 will be judged by addressing vital concerns of all parties in a time-bound framework,” he said.

“As mentioned in the resolution, steps to end double standards and racial or religious profiling need to be taken. Such acts must not be condoned by states but duly addressed through structured and sustained engagement.”

OIC Secretary-General Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu meets President Obama during an official reception given by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Istanbul on April 6, 2009. (Photo: OIC)

Ihsanoglu silent on freedom of expression

Resolution 16/18 calls on states to make “a strong effort to counter religious profiling, which is understood to be the invidious use of religion as a criterion in conducting questionings, searches and other law enforcement investigative procedures.”

Countries are expected “to take effective measures to ensure that public functionaries in the conduct of their public duties do not discriminate against an individual on the basis of religion or belief.”

For the U.S. and other mostly Western democracies, a crucial aspect of the resolution is a clause “[r]affirming the positive role that the exercise of the right to freedom of opinion and expression and the full respect for the freedom to seek, receive and impart information can play in strengthening democracy and combating religious intolerance.”

Despite the importance ascribed to that aspect of the resolution by the U.S. and other, Ihsanoglu in his brief comments to the Washington meeting made no reference to freedom of expression or freedom of speech.

Instead, he obliquely warned that failure to act against religious “hate speech” would fuel Islamic terror.

“Let me be clear. In a world faced with the menace of terrorism, the implications of not evolving a normative framework to respond to hate speech and other forms of incitement to hatred, discrimination, and violence, cannot and must not be ignored,” he said.

“The resolution 16/18 provides with a good basis for concerted action by states, at both the national and the international levels. It must be utilized accordingly. We would, otherwise, be faced with the unaffordable risk of the agenda hijacked and set by radicals and non-state actors.”

In this photo released by the Saudi Press Agency, the OIC's Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu welcomes Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia on Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2010. (AP Photo/HO)

‘More dangerous’

One of the features of resolution 16/18 cited most often by its Western supporters is the fact that it calls for the criminalization only of religion-related “incitement to imminent violence” – not for instances of religious stereotyping or stigmatization that stop short of inciting violence, as was the case in the earlier religious defamation texts.

Critics are concerned, however, about how this could be interpreted. Would the burning of a copy of the Qur’an be viewed as inciting “imminent violence,” given the intensity of Muslim feeling about the sanctity of the book?

In the view of veteran international religious liberty analyst and advocate Elizabeth Kendal resolution 16/18, “far from being a breakthrough for free speech … is actually more dangerous than” the religious defamation resolutions.

“Indeed, the strategic shift from defamation to incitement actually advances the OIC’s primary goal: the criminalization of criticism of Islam,” she wrote.

“For, in Resolution 16/18, the OIC has deliberately and strategically adopted the language of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights Article 20.2, which mandates: any advocacy of hatred that ‘constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence shall be prohibited by law.’”

The ICCPR, which came into force in 1976, is legally binding on those countries that have ratified it.

The United States ratified it in 1992, although with a declared reservation that “article 20 does not authorize or require legislation or other action by the United States that would restrict the right of free speech and association protected by the Constitution and laws of the United States.”

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