The OIC Does Defend, Not Suppress, Freedom of Expression


On 12 January 2015, Robert C. Blitt wrote on the USA Today, “Powerful, mainstream Muslim groups must recognize they’re breeding religious intolerance”. He argued that despite their denouncement of violence, most lately after the heinous Charlie Hebdo terrorist attack, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and the Arab League and many of their individual member states “must bear responsibility for nurturing an environment that breeds violence in the name of defending Islam”.

Referring to the OIC efforts at the UN General Assembly, what he thinks were for prohibition of defamation of religions and more specifically for silencing criticism of Islam, Blitt writes “translated into practice inside Islamic nations and increasingly elsewhere, this toxic vision breeds contempt from freedom of religion and expression, justifies the killing of Muslims and non-Muslims alike, and casts a pall of self-censorship over academia and the arts”. Moreover, referring to blasphemy laws existent in various OIC countries, he accuses the OIC of abetting religiously motivated violence, such as the ones took place in Paris.

For those with a political agenda, it might be comforting to think that terrorist acts, such as the ones in Paris, are being perpetrated in the name of Islam because of the “toxic vision” of silencing criticism of Islam, allegedly produced by the OIC. Distorting the facts, however, about what the OIC is trying to do does not contribute to preventing such acts of terrorism.

The OIC has never advocated for blasphemy laws. Nor were the OIC-sponsored resolutions dealing with the freedom of expression an attempt to legislate a universal blasphemy law banning criticism of Islam. What the OIC has sought to do is actually quite different from the distorted story time and again repeated by organized-Islamophobic groups.

In 1999, at the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva, member states of the OIC proposed a resolution entitled “Combating Defamation of Religions”. The rationale behind this resolution was to start a global dialogue on how to engage with the increasing trend of vilification of Islam and its adherents. Later on, rightfully, the scope and content of this resolution was improved as to include provisions that would address the increasing harassments against Christians, Jews and other faith communities.

In essence, the “Combating Defamation of Religions” resolution deplored “the use of print, audio-visual and electronic media, including the Internet, and of any other means to incite acts of violence, xenophobia or related intolerance and discrimination towards Islam or any religions”. Moreover, the resolution urged all the UN member states “to provide, within their respective legal and constitutional systems, adequate protection against acts of hatred, discrimination, intimidation and coercion resulting from the defamation of any religion”. So, essentially, the resolution called for necessary arrangements, not against criticism of Islam or any other religion, but against the acts of hatred, discrimination, and violence that may result from defamations of religions and demonization of their adherents, which applied to Jews, Christians, Muslims and other faiths equally.

To address differences on the resolution, the OIC once more took the initiative and proposed an eight-point clarification, at the 15th session of UN Human Rights Council in Geneva in September 2010. The OIC member states, the US, the EU member states and other partners worked out a new resolution. It is titled the HRC Resolution 16/18 “Combating religious intolerance and negative stereotypes, stigmatization, discrimination, and incitement to violence, and violence against individuals based on religion or belief”, which was adopted by consensus in 2011 both at the UN Human Rights Council and in the UN General Assembly.

Since March 2011, resolutions based on the 16/18 have been adopted by consensus every year by the UN General Assembly and the UN Human Rights Council. Many nations including the US authorities and civil society organization as well as respectable international human rights institutions, such as the Freedom House, embraced the new approach. In July 2012, along with the other partners, the OIC, the US, and the EU launched the so-called Istanbul Process towards encouraging the implementation of this new consensus resolution by more and more countries. 

The OIC-sponsored HRC Resolution 16/18 provides universally accepted criteria and guidance for the states to deal with the issue of blasphemy, hate speech, negative stereotyping, stigmatization, and discrimination on the basis of religion or belief. It is not a universal blasphemy law that bans freedom of expression. Every passing day, no matter how the truth about it is distorted, the HRC Resolution 16/18 is becoming more and more relevant, not less, especially amid the rise of ultra-nationalism and racism. Under the guise of freedom of expression, the so-called Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West (PEGIDA), the Greek neo-Nazi Golden Dawn, and other groups or individuals are let to break the fire of racism and xenophobia. 

Radicalism, violent extremism and terrorism have many, and amalgam of, roots causes. Reducing the latest violent attacks in Paris to the issue of freedom of speech would be misleading and simplistic. The OIC has always been, and will remain, ready to be part of any constructive engagement to tackle these menaces threatening all of us no matter who we are and what faith tradition we belong to.


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