The defamation of religion, according to a non-binding resolution newly passed in the Human Rights Commission, is an infringement of liberty. An article in The Economist entitled ‘The limits of freedom and faith’ claims that it is not the “defamation” of religion that threatens rights but rather measures that supposedly defend it.
The argument is fairly simple: such statements embolden countries that use blasphemy laws to criminalize dissent. Insofar as any ambiguously worded resolution is open to misinterpretation and abuse, it certainly will be used to curb dissent. However, the danger exists in either scenario. If no restrictions are made on the kind of criticisms we can level against religion, it lends legitimacy to state actions that unnecessarily clamp down on religious freedoms. This is already the case in France, where intolerance and xenophobia are concealed under the patriotic cloak of secularism. Even more insidious is the normative signal it sends to countries like China where the clampdown on religion, particularly in the case of the Buddhists and the Falun Gong, can be justified under the banner of constructive criticism. So the question then is not if religious defamation can open the door for abuse, but under which paradigm is the abuse more dangerous.
Take the case of those countries that do curb dissent under guise of blasphemy. More often that not, these countries tend to be hardened theocracies. Regardless of whether this non-binding text is passed, they are not about to go volte-face on their intolerance of dissent. It emboldens them only to the extent that Malaysia is persuaded by CEDAW to provide equal status for women (which it does not). Neither does the passage of the text affect the normative signals sent to the international community that human right abuses occur in these countries. The crusaders of democracy are not about to brush off claims of authoritarianism even if they hide under the banner of religion.
On the other hand, when first world beacons of democracy, like France and Denmark, go out of their way to permit criticism of religion in the public sphere, it has a far more insidious effect. It lends legitimacy to the rhetoric of vengeance that Islamic extremists espouse, justifying, for instance, the asymmetrical treatment of Christians and Ahmadis in Pakistan. Even more dangerous is the situation where a free flow of religious criticism encourages the view that states should stand silent when messages of hate are propagated until riots break out and casualties are recorded. India, a secular state, learned this the hard way from the Ayodhya crisis where the free flow of hate caused not only the destruction of a 400 year-old mosque, but also brutal religious massacres.
There is such a thing as pointless criticism. The Danish cartoons of the prophet served no purpose other than a cruel litmus test to ascertain the pecking order of the right to free press. It is true that there is no right to ‘not be offended’. To suggest so would amount to blatant rights inflation. But, in the real world, unnecessarily offending an integral part of a person’s identity will not result in benign consequences. It is high time the secularists get off their ivory tower of free expression and develop a modicum of sensitivity.