A new take on defamation…

…but how will it translate to just prosecutions for “blasphemy”?

As a union between 57 Muslim nations, the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) has led a 12 year campaign to

AFP

win majority approval in the United Nations Security Council and General Assembly for a series of resolutions on “combating defamation of religion”.  What this means, really, is that these nations wanted to preserve the ability to penalize individuals (or institutions) who allegedly “defame” the majority religion of that country.

Such defamation laws are perceived by many critics to serve against accepted international laws on the freedom of expression, speech, and association.  They are also criticized for serving as a justification for individuals to take matters into their hands by way of punishing those who they accuse of “blasphemy”.  Poignant examples of how this has played out are the killings of two government officials in Pakistan (Salman Taseer, an outspoken advocate for reform of the blasphemy laws, and Shahbaz Bhatti, the Federal Minister for Minorities) just in the past year.

Pakistan, in particular, which speaks as the representative for the OIC, had steadfastly argued in support of protection against religious defamation.  Ironically, Pakistan’s population is also over 97% Muslim.  One would think “blasphemy” is not a problem in a country where the vast majority of your fellow countrymen carry the same or similar religious views.  Yet Pakistan, as a matter of policy, places great importance on defending against defamation and “criticism that offends ordinary believers”.  Unfortunately, this stance has seemingly translated to street level intolerance and exploitation of vulnerable minorities (as per the example of Asia Bibi).

Over the years, support for such a resolution for the purpose of “combating religious defamation” has declined.

A new 3-page resolution has recently emerged, which the OIC is supporting, albeit with caution.  The new resolution “condemns any advocacy of religious hatred that amounts to incitement of hostility or violence against believers and calls on governments to act to prevent it”.   Without the use of the word “defamation”, this resolution emphasizes the protection of individuals instead of the protection of any particular religion.

As with most human rights laws and campaigns, while this appears to be a step in the right direction at the international, policy level, how will this play out on the ground in states like Pakistan, where murder for “blasphemy” is becoming increasingly common and sadly violent?  How will lawyers, politicians, and the media communicate the meaning of any such law and the purpose behind it should it make its way through the Security Council and General Assembly?

As with the blasphemy laws that currently exist in Pakistan, any change at the legislative level must be adequately communicated at the grassroots level in order to take effect.  Between advocacy for reform at the international and national level and understanding what the reform is actually calling for at the very local level, something is getting lost — something that is apparently vital to the message of tolerance and change. As I understand it, the reform that is sought by opponents of the current blasphemy laws in Pakistan is to prevent the unjust prosecution of individuals who have allegedly committed blasphemy, without any  just legal procedures and without the legal safeguards provided by proper rules of evidence.  It is not advocating for a blanket approval of the desecration of anyone’s religion.  Hopefully, this broadened view of religious tolerance and protection at the international level will, eventually, one day, trickle down to the masses. As with many conundrums relating to Pakistan of late, one can only hope.

Read more at Dawn News.

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