Exporting Blasphemy Restrictions: The Organization of the Islamic Conference and the United Nations
Senior Fellow, Center for Religious Freedom

Twenty years ago, few in the West were concerned with matters of blasphemy, apostasy, or insults towards Islam.1 But the 21st century has seen eruptions of violence worldwide in reaction to, for example, Theo van Gogh's film Submission, the Danish and Swedish cartoons, Pope Benedict XVI's Regensburg speech, Geert Wilders' film Fitna, and the false Newsweek story on Qur'an desecration. Some events, such as the declaration by Terry Jones, a pastor in Florida with a congregation of less than 50, that he would burn a Qur'an during prime time on September 11, 2010, dominated several news cycles. The December 11, 2010 bombing in Stockholm was partly a response to Lars Vilks' Swedish cartoons of Mohammad. Other 2010 events received less attention: in September, Iranian pastor Youcef Nadarkhani was sentenced to death for apostasy, and in November, Pakistani Aasia Bibi was sentenced to death for blasphemy.

There are many reasons for the increasingly public acts of violence purportedly carried out in defense of Islam. These include broad structural factors such as the growth of international communications, which amplifies events and reactions to events. But another major reason is the ongoing campaign by the Saudi-based Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), which has given the anti-blasphemy movement weight and traction. The OIC, a 57 member body headquartered in Jeddah, was founded in 1969 to respond to the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. Particularly since the OIC’s "Extraordinary Summit" in 2005 in Saudi Arabia, when its campaign over the Danish cartoons helped ignite a global uproar, the OIC’s leadership has grown vociferous in denouncing and campaigning against what it indiscriminately and promiscuously calls "Islamophobia."

While religious freedom is traditionally understood as the right of persons rather than religions per se, the OIC has campaigned to redefine religious freedom as enforced respect for religion itself, and especially for Islam and everything Islamic. The OIC and its members have been responsible for placing "defamation against religions"—code for Islamic blasphemy restrictions—on the human rights agenda of the United Nations. This was done in an attempt to shape a new international human rights regime that would supplant existing laws protecting individual freedoms and would instead ostensibly protect religions, particularly Islam. While there were a multiplicity of actors, motives, and agendas in scores of countries during the 2005–2006 Danish cartoon backlash, the OIC lent heft to a decades-long, multi-party campaign—a campaign aimed to export restrictions on "insulting Islam" and blasphemy to the rest of the world.

The OIC Campaign

Today, OIC member countries are demanding that all countries curb the intertwined freedoms of religion and expression. Western countries have been dilatory and confused in their responses to the OIC’s demands, not least because the West lacks clarity about what dangers the demands entail and what lies behind them. Recently, most of the discussion has focused naively on questions of how to curb "hate speech," how to identify what are more generally thought to be insults to religion, and how to accommodate such demands within free societies. However, a survey of the two-decade-long OIC campaign reveals that its goals go far beyond banning what is customarily called "hate speech"; its goals include banning criticism of OIC countries and their governments.

The first major attempt to silence writers in the West was the February 14, 1989, decree by Iran’s Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Khomeini for "all zealous Muslims to execute quickly wherever they find them" the British author Salman Rushdie and all others involved with his book The Satanic Verses. Khomeini wanted to ensure that "no one will dare to insult Islamic sanctity" ever again.2 As Iran’s highest official, he also needed to shore up his political legitimacy following the end of an inconclusive and devastating war with Iraq.

Khomeini’s decree triggered the assassination of the novel’s Japanese translator, the stabbing of its Italian translator, the shooting of its Norwegian publisher, the burning to death of 35 guests at a Turkish hotel hosting its Turkish publisher, and the lifelong need for security for Rushdie. It heralded a worldwide movement to curb freedoms of religion and speech by attempting to export and internationalize the blasphemy rules that were already suppressing religious minorities and Muslim dissenters in many Muslim-majority countries. One of the major arenas in this effort has been the United Nations.

Attacks on UN Rapporteurs and NGOs

In 1994, Gaspar Biro, a young Hungarian lawyer and the UN Special Rapporteur on Sudan, concluded that Sudan was violating international human rights agreements due to what Sudan claimed was its sharia-based penal code. Under this code, convictions for adultery, theft, and apostasy meant harsh penalties, including amputation or execution for anyone over the age of seven.3 Biro reported to the UN Human Rights Commission:

It does not matter in this context who the drafter is nor what the sources of inspirations of these norms are. In terms of human rights, the only question is whether or not the national legislation is compatible with the existing international instruments to which Sudan is a party.4

Sudan’s UN delegation responded by calling Biro’s report "flagrant blasphemy and a deliberate insult to the Islamic religion, for which the author of the report must be interrogated and condemned by all States and Organizations that respect human and peoples [sic] rights" and "brought to justice."5 When asked why Biro was not permitted back into Sudan to collect information for a subsequent report, the Representative replied with a thinly veiled threat: "We don’t want to speculate about his fate if he is to continue offending the feelings of Muslims worldwide." The Sudanese official added that the General Assembly, "take the necessary remedial measures to comfort the feelings of Muslims worldwide for the unwarranted challenge to Islam posed by those references, otherwise no one would be in a position to guarantee that he would not face the fate of Mr. Salman Rushdie."6 In 1998, Biro was replaced as Special Rapporteur to Sudan, while the Sudanese government continued many of its atrocities, now widely recognized as genocide, in the south and commenced new crimes in Darfur.

In 1997, Indonesia's delegate, acting for the OIC, accused the UN Special Rapporteur against Racism of blasphemy for a passage in his report dealing with anti-Semitism. The Rapporteur had included the statement, "Muslim extremists are turning increasingly to their own religious sources, first and foremost the Qur’an, as a primary anti-Jewish source." After Pakistan called it "an insult to Islam" and other states complained, the Commission adopted—without a vote—a resolution, in which it protested the reference to the Qur’an and requested that it be deleted.7 Subsequent reports on anti-Semitism mentioned only Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union as specific problem areas.8 Also under OIC pressure, the Commission suspended its monitoring of Iran in 2002. As in the Sudanese case, Iranian human rights abuses have continued apace.

Meanwhile, following a protracted struggle in the UN with human rights non-governmental organizations (NGOs), OIC states also demanded and obtained a de facto ban on mentioning Islamic institutions in the Commission. Despite the fact that these same governments had sought to promulgate a specifically Islamic declaration of human rights within the UN—in many cases also citing Islam as a source in national laws and constitutions, and even organizing themselves in the OIC as a self-proclaimed Islamic voting bloc—their sudden contradictory contention that Islam is not a proper topic for discussion won over the Commission's leadership.

OIC member states used this implied ban as a means to silence their NGO critics within UN human rights fora. Sudan charged in August 1997 that Christian Solidarity International (CSI)—an NGO that had spoken and worked against slavery in that country—had "offended Islam, ... by implying that [Islam] condoned an ideology of genocide, and by alleging that what CSI termed an ‘Arab-Islamic State’ could order the collective punishment of communities that resisted its programs by consigning them to slavery."9 This practice of declaring an offense any mention of Islam made by a country or representative other than the OIC members themselves has continued. Pakistan, representing the OIC, used the Human Rights Council to declare in September 2006 that "[t]he recent reference by Pope Benedict XVI to the Prophet Muhammad had hurt the sensibilities of Muslims."10 Since matters pertaining to Islam were not supposed to be mentioned, discussions of "hurtful" pronouncements by Islamic leaders remained off limits.11

The UN as Blasphemy Monitor

Beginning in 1999 in the UN Human Rights Commission, OIC members began a coordinated campaign of blanket condemnation of any commentary they could construe as a "defamation" of Islam. Resolutions to this effect have since been adopted regularly. Meanwhile, Western countries moved from unsuccessfully seeking compromise resolutions in 1999 and 2000 to opposing such resolutions altogether. In 2004, the UN General Assembly (GA) itself took up the question of "Islamophobia," while the Human Rights Council, which replaced the discredited Human Rights Commission in 2006, continued its predecessor's practices.

In 2007, the Council adopted a resolution titled "Combating Defamation of Religions," co-sponsored by Pakistan (for the OIC) and Venezuela. Not surprisingly, it mentioned specifically only the situation of Islam and Muslims and noted the 2005 OIC Mecca summit. The resolution drew strong protests from Western NGOs, including the Jubilee Campaign, the Becket Fund, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and Freedom House. However, that year UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon appeared to endorse criminalizing "defamation of religions" by declaring, "A trend is emerging towards amending Criminal Codes to reflect the existence of the different phenomena constituting defamation of religions. The persistence of these phenomena, however, proves that further efforts need to be made."12 OIC members abstained from a Council resolution on religious freedom, because while it guaranteed the right to convert, it made no mention of protecting religions from "defamation." The Saudi delegation said it could not "accept texts which go against the Islamic sharia."13 However, the OIC did not succeed in gaining EU or US approval for the concept of "defamation of religions."

By 2008, though resolutions on "defamation of religions" continued to be adopted, albeit with decreasing support, the center of gravity in the UN shifted to "religious hate speech." Europeans saw resolutions against hate speech as putting the emphasis properly on individuals rather than religions. The OIC, however, still viewed them as a convenient pretext to declare allegedly Islamic institutions off-limits for criticism, and, thus, really a proxy for religious defamation. The 2008 resolutions also tried to conflate racial and religious issues. They argued that a ruling by the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, permitting bans against "the dissemination of all ideas based upon racial superiority or hatred," should be equally applicable to speech inciting religious hatred.14

In March 2008, the Human Rights Council further circumscribed freedom of expression by adopting, with overwhelming support, an amendment introduced by Egypt (for the Group of African States), Pakistan (for the Organization of the Islamic Conference), and the Palestinians (for the Group of Arab States). This amendment changed the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression so that it reported on the "abuse" of the right of freedom of expression by a purported act of racial or religious discrimination. The US Ambassador to the UN correctly stated that the revision "attempts to legitimize the criminalization of expression" and aims to place "restrictions on individuals rather than to emphasize the duty and responsibility of governments to guarantee, uphold, promote, and protect human rights."15 The Canadian delegate likewise argued that the resolution "would turn the [Special Rapporteur’s] mandate on its head."16

In response to the Council's amendment, on December 10, 2008, four Freedom of Expression monitors—from the UN, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the Organization of American States (OAS), and the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights (ACHPR)—adopted an extraordinary joint declaration that emphasized the importance of "open debate about all ideas and social phenomena in society and the right of all to be able to manifest their culture, religion, and beliefs in practice" and lauded the abolition in many countries of laws "used to prevent legitimate criticism of powerful religious leaders and to suppress the views of religious minorities, dissenting believers and non-believers…." They argued that, although prohibitions on "incitement to hatred, discrimination, or violence" were acceptable, "open dialogue that exposes the harm prejudice causes" should be the primary means of combating bigotry. Their declaration pointed out that the "defamation of religions" framework was unacceptable because it "does not accord with international standards regarding defamation, which refer to the protection of reputation of individuals."17

International Treaties: Exceptions Become the Rule

International human rights treaties, the foundation for global human rights for nearly half a century, are turning out to be weak bulwarks against the OIC’s push for restrictions on negative commentary on Islam. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR, effective 1976) is the main treaty protecting individual rights to freedom of religion and of expression. Its guarantees of free expression also contain vaguely worded limits to those rights. These limits are now being interpreted expansively, including by many Western countries, to erode the Covenant’s core freedoms of both religion and expression.

For example, Article 18 establishes one's "freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching." Furthermore, Article 19 protects freedom of expression, including "freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice." But, in addition, the ICCPR also sets forth "necessary" restrictions on these freedoms, in order to protect "the rights or reputations of others," "national security," or public order, health, or morals (Paragraph 3). Also, Article 20 (included by the then-Soviet Bloc states over strong Western opposition) explicitly obliges states to prohibit "[a]ny advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence." This provision is the one now used in Western countries to apply religious hate speech laws and limit the rights found in articles 18 and 19.18

The OIC’s strategy is to stretch these limits on rights into a supposed new right for Islam not to be insulted. The UN's "defamation of religions" resolutions seek to legitimize this idea by suggesting that speech criticizing religious beliefs is a human rights violation rather than the exercise of a protected human right. This "defamation" push attempts to redefine human rights in five ways, by:
# treating religious matters as if they were akin to racial matters;
# granting rights to religions themselves rather than to individuals;
# creating a new right not to be offended in matters of religion;
# claiming that freedom of religion stands in opposition to freedom of expression; and
# giving an expansive interpretation to the exceptions to the right of freedom of expression.

An additional problem is that there is no clarity about what specific forms of expression the OIC countries seek to limit within Western countries. There are no clear definitions of religious defamation or religious hate speech. Similarly, no common practice regarding blasphemy crimes exists within the OIC membership. Many OIC expectations are based upon amorphous rules expressed in practices that vary from country to country and evolve and expand over time. Within countries that have such restrictions, definitions are generally left to case law, commonly unwritten, and often determined by the subjective and sometimes self-serving opinions of local authorities. The nature of what is being asked of non-Muslim-majority societies, or of Muslim-majority societies for that matter, is obscure. Also, within most Western countries, discrimination and incitement to violence against Muslims, as well as other people, are already understood to be crimes. The bans on speech against Islam that the OIC is pursuing must include far broader restrictions.


The freedom to debate, reject, criticize, and/or refuse to respect religious ideas, and the freedom to worship according to one's conscience, are essential elements of religious freedom. In contrast, prohibitions on "defamation of religions" reflect the view that, in the realm of belief, government should serve as the arbiter and regulator of ideological orthodoxy rather than as the defender of individual freedom. This is the same principle operative behind many OIC states' own domestic laws against blasphemy and apostasy. Many OIC countries have limits on speech regarding Islam that control not only ridicule and mocking language, but also what can be expressed, analyzed, and argued in the political, cultural, social, economic, and religious realms; in fact, these limits are major means of social and political control. They coerce religious conformity and forcibly silence criticism of dominant religious ideas, especially when those dominant ideas support, and are supported by, political power.

Even when the state is not repressing critics directly, such laws create an atmosphere in which purported blasphemers are subject to vigilante attacks or mob violence instigated by radical preachers. Perhaps the most striking recent examples are the murders of the courageous Salman Taseer, Governor of Punjab Province in Pakistan, and of Shahbaz Bhatti, Pakistan's Minister of Minority Affairs. Taseer was killed on January 4, 2011, by one of his guards, who deemed him a blasphemer solely because he wanted the abolition of Pakistan's blasphemy laws. Bhatti, the only Christian in Pakistan's cabinet, was killed on March 2, 2011, also for opposing the blasphemy laws.

Where religion and power are intertwined, states invariably draw on laws restricting speech critical of religion for other than purely religious purposes. Many OIC members silence their domestic opponents and critics through a wide variety of repressive measures, but one prominent tactic, especially predominant in Iran, is to accuse such critics of "insulting Islam" or the "Islamic regime." These accusations enable both the crushing of political dissent and the silencing of Muslims who question the official and dominant versions of Islam—including those who advocate versions of Islam that promote human freedom.

As the late Abdurrahman Wahid, former President of Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim country, and head of Nahdlatul Ulama, the world's largest Muslim organization, has written:

Rather than legally stifle criticism and debate—which will only encourage Muslim fundamentalists in their efforts to impose a spiritually void, harsh and monolithic understanding of Islam upon all the world—Western authorities should instead firmly defend freedom of expression, not only in their own nations, but globally, as enshrined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights."19

Those who are humble and strive to live in genuine submission to God (i.e., islâm) do not claim to be perfect in their understanding of the Truth. Rather, they are content to live in peace with others, whose paths and views may differ."20