Monday, December 31, 2012

Blasphemy Laws, Atheism and Offending Religion

Australia's leading human rights organisation HREOC at the behest of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) decided along with a whole bunch of others that we needed more laws, and internationally binding ones, to protect religion from criticism by enshrining such law into the charter and covenants of the UN. It was yet another attempt by the OIC to implement blasphemy laws internationally through a UN resolution so as to make it an offence to offend religion specifically to combat, what they term as being, "Islamaphobia". The first time was in 1999 and the latest push beginning in 2007 was fortunately again unsuccessful in 2011 but another attempt is being made.

The primary aim for the proposed resolution was to specifically enact through jointly agreed international law the prohibition of defamation of religion, limiting comment on religion to that being of a positive nature only. To negatively critique or offend religion, primarily Islam, was to be deemed an offence, internationally. It was correctly defeated but they'd gotten closer on this second occasion. It is troubling that organisations such as HREOC cannot perceive the actual threat to human rights the implementing of such laws would be. Some of the major problems are that it would equate attributes held by an individual, such as race,  physicality or gender with organisations or concepts and ideas such as that of a religion. Ideas and therefore religions cannot be defamed through debate, criticism, through not "believing" them, through not accepting them and/or choosing to follow another religion. Neither is it the case that race can be assigned to a religion. Many followers of a particular religion may be of one particular dominant race (many are not) but religions are inherently multiracial. So how is that so many consider it or entertain the idea that it is racist to critique religion, in particular Islam? Race and physicality, including gender are protected attributes in sections of law designed to protect an individual from attack and persecution on this level. It is not permitted to discriminate based upon a protected attribute. Essentially the OIC and human rights bodies like HREOC are saying religion should be a protected attribute. In modelling the law along the lines of Defamation we have a way to cease any criticism of religion through an individual's right to access that law and claim the offence as being an attack on their person and religion as a protected attribute.
Baleful Worship - Submission (detail)

Taking this further to its logical conclusion if we allow for a world where there exists the prohibition of defamation of religion one can outlaw any and all unendorsed religion, commentary of any kind on religion other than by experts in scripture, other beliefs, and of course this makes atheism completely illegal. Atheism and atheists can by their existence be viewed offensive to the religious.

As what is considered non-defamatory commentary by one person, country, religion can subjectively be determined to be offensively defamatory by another person, country, religion how such laws might operate on an international or local scale other than in dictatorial or tyrannical terms makes one wonder about its proponent's ultimate aims and thinking. Clearly the State (international community?) would need to dictate the definition of what might be deemed permitted or offensive in law and by extension what religion/s were permitted or offensive in law. The result would be that the State (international community) would need to enact as law the legally recognised religion/s of the land (or planet) otherwise people might accidentally offend by not belonging to the endorsed religion/s. Further to this by not belonging to an endorsed religion or by being atheist one will have offended not only religion at this point but will have also offended the State and will need to answer not only for having blasphemed religion but having committed sedition for being anti-the-state by being irreligious. Not such an inconceivable result.

In Defamation Law an aggrieved party only needs to state they are aggrieved to have been defamed. Religious vilification laws have worked similarly. The religious perceived a threat and felt aggrieved and so are defamed by an act, a comment or reference made about their religion or religious convictions. Framed to mirror Defamation law the UN proposition to enact defamation of religion laws stinks not only of the most sinister form of censorship but by extension in addition the proposed abolishing of an individual's right to freedom of thought, ideas and expression. In the Australian State of Victoria, we already have an introduction of such limitations in the form of the Racial and Religious Tolerance Act, introduced by the Bracks Labor government in 2001

The Victorian Act was used in the now notorious Catch the Fire Ministry case (this link to Saltshakers blog has an excellent brief synopsis of the case and the ultimate outcome for the parties). The outcome, following a successful appeal by the defendants and instruction to have the case reheard, was arrived at during a fresh Mediation Hearing, with both parties agreeing that robust debate on religion was permissible.  This is just a mediated agreement between two parties though. It means nothing in terms of the potential for the further use of this deeply flawed law. This law has gouged a deep trench through freedoms of all Victorians and attempts are being made to deepen and make this trench wider and permanent by using it as a model to pursue changes in the UN.

The Catch the Fire case took 5 years and hundreds of thousands of dollars to defend and presumably prosecute. The rational for which is overtly clear, protect religion from all forms of criticism and in particular the religion of Islam.

The right to pursue a religion must never entail that your religion or your conviction for it are exempted from examination, discussion and criticism by others. It is heartening the UN committee concluded

"48. Prohibitions of displays of lack of respect for a religion or other belief system, including blasphemy laws, are incompatible with the Covenant, except in the specific circumstances envisaged in article 20, paragraph 2, of the Covenant. Such prohibitions must also comply with the strict requirements of article 19, paragraph 3, as well as such articles as 2, 5, 17, 18 and 26. Thus, for instance, it would be impermissible for any such laws to discriminate in favour of or against one or certain religions or belief systems, or their adherents over another, or religious believers over non-believers. Nor would it be permissible for such prohibitions to be used to prevent or punish criticism of religious leaders or commentary on religious doctrine and tenets of faith.115"
International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights - General Comment No 34

The OIC will however continue to push their particular agenda to prevent criticism of Islam at the UN on an annual basis.

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About Leeanneart

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Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
We are first and foremost human with a responsibility to the humanity within us and not to any faith, political, apolitical, social or societal group, union or faction. We are responsible for our own reputation, and for what deeds we do and what achievements or otherwise in life we enjoy. The rest is nonsense.