U.N. Resolution and Political Correctness Aim to Curtail Freedom of Speech in the West
By Matthew M. Hausman
Freedom of speech is a right that is often taken for granted in the West, but one that is essential for the continuity of democratic society. It is also an endangered species that is currently under stealth attack by religious extremism masquerading as multicultural tolerance. As the United Nations recently called for member states to ratify the “Defamation of Religions Resolution,” as European nations enact legislation to designate as hate speech the critical discussion of specific religions, and as the political left blames western democracies for inflaming Islamist passions by refusing to submit to doctrinal totalitarianism, the right to speak freely is being threatened by a culture of political correctness in which progressive policymakers seek rapprochement with the Arab-Muslim world.
As it has done for a number of years, the United Nations recently put the nonbinding Defamation of Religions Resolution to a vote. Proclaiming its purpose to be the “[p]romotion and protection of human rights: human rights questions, including alternative approaches for improving the effective enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms,” the Resolution includes in its preamble the following paragraph:
Noting with deep concern the serious instances of intolerance, discrimination and acts of violence based on religion or belief, intimidation and coercion motivated by extremism, religious or otherwise, occurring in many parts of the world, including cases motivated by Islamophobia, Judeophobia and Christianophobia, in addition to the negative projection of certain religions in the media and the introduction and enforcement of laws and administrative measures that specifically discriminate against and target persons with certain ethnic and religious backgrounds, particularly Muslim minorities, and that threaten to impede their full enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms.
Except for the superficial attempt to equate “Islamophobia” with “Judeophobia” and “Christianophobia” in the foregoing passage, the only religion expressly identified in the Resolution as requiring special protection is Islam. The Resolution cites the antisemitic Durban Conference of 2009 and the “Durban Declaration and Programme of Action” of 2001 for moral authority and calls on all nations to enact laws to suppress speech it equates with the “vilification of religion.” Criticism of the Resolution has focused on its characterization of religions as entities vested with human rights, its call to criminalize objective discussion and critical commentary regarding religion, and its plea for transnational enforcement, which in effect would constitute the de facto recognition of universal blasphemy laws. Because only one religion is specifically named, however, the real purpose of the Resolution seems to be the subtle promotion of a sectarian agenda, which is problematic for several reasons.
First and foremost, the Resolution purports to imbue religions with human rights, although such rights by definition apply to people, not to abstract thoughts or concepts. Never before have belief systems been considered as anthropomorphic entities possessing inherent human rights. Beliefs are subjective by nature and particular to their adherents. They cannot be forced on anyone in a free society and do not possess or exercise personal rights. Declaring that a belief system possesses the same intrinsic rights as an individual, and that public criticism of that belief system constitutes a criminal act, requires “nonbelievers” to accept on some level the validity of that system, regardless of whether it conflicts with their own philosophical beliefs. Such a forced dynamic ultimately contravenes the free exercise of religion, a basic right that should inure to all humans regardless of personal belief or faith.
Second, the Resolution in effect mandates the international recognition of blasphemy laws, even though such laws themselves often work to discriminate against religious minorities and deny human rights. It is this aspect of the Resolution that is most insidious, in particular because the only religion mentioned by name is Islam and because those deemed to be “infidels” or “unbelievers” do not have equal rights under Sharia. This should not be surprising considering the Resolution’s pedigree.
The Defamation of Religions Resolution has been promoted by the Organization of the Islamic Conference, a body composed of 57 states predominantly governed by a stringent religious doctrine – Sharia – in which the freedoms of expression, religion and worship are severely limited, and in which subjugated peoples (dhimmis) do not have equal rights. Thus, the nations advocating the Resolution do not respect the values and ideals that form the backbone of western society. In addition, these nations promote antisemitism on a global scale and reject the concept of permanent peace with Israel, a nation whose land they consider to have been incorporated into the world of Islam by jihad and whose people they refuse to recognize as religious, cultural or diplomatic peers worthy of coequal treatment or national autonomy.
Although apologists of the Resolution argue that it properly identifies defamation of religion as a human rights violation, they ignore the sophistry in its attempt to assign human rights to an abstract concept rather than to individuals who believe in the concept. They also ignore that the Resolution identifies only one religion for special protection, despite the treatment of those considered to be nonbelievers as infidels and dhimmis who are subject to onerous privations. Thus, they support a resolution under which recognition of the rights of one religion could compromise the rights of those who adhere to different faiths or none at all.
Critics believe that by equating discussion of Islam with hate speech, the Resolution’s proponents seek to prevent objective debate regarding the disparate treatment of “nonbelievers” and repression of dissent that occurs in nations governed by Sharia. The intent seems to be to squelch comment regarding conduct that, while perhaps consistent with Sharia, is unacceptable in western society. Moreover, by seeking to criminalize public criticism of religion – and specifically Islam – the Resolution’s advocates attempt to limit the free exchange of ideas. Although many liberals now recognize the threat posed by the Resolution, it has been enabled over the years by a United Nations that has catered to the whims of leftist dictatorships, Islamist regimes, and radical NGOs with whom progressives have often found common cause. Ironically, while the political left has routinely denounced Christian principles and Jewish values, it has ignored the repression of dissent and rejection of democratic principles that characterize states subject to Sharia. The point conveniently forgotten is that citizens in democratic societies are free to worship as they choose, although they must also respect the freedom of others to believe and speak differently.
The issue goes beyond the Resolution and is particularly poignant in Europe, where growing immigrant populations from the Mideast and North Africa are demanding in effect that their host societies submit to the dictates of Sharia. This was illustrated a few years ago by the uproar over the publication in Denmark and Sweden of cartoons and artwork deemed to be offensive to Islam. Left-wing ideologues picked up the standard during the controversy, labeling the images hateful because they were considered blasphemous under Sharia – although not by Europeans reared in egalitarian societies that traditionally value free expression. The political left’s concurrence with religious extremists on this issue was disingenuous because one could not regard the disputed publications as blasphemous personally unless one also accepted the authority of Sharia to determine what constitutes blasphemy. By adopting this position, however, progressive pundits and legislatures in effect called for non-Muslims to submit to a religious system they do not believe in and which considers them infidels, and thereby to subordinate their own values to those of another culture.
According to common dictionary usage, “blasphemy” is defined as irreverent behavior toward that which is held sacred, and “sacred” is defined as religious respect by association with the divine. By these definitions, the sanctity of an object, symbol or ideal is determined by a subjective ecclesiastical authority, not by objective universal standards or secular principles. For offensive conduct to constitute blasphemy in a religious sense, therefore, the actor must recognize the sanctity or divinity of his target. Disrespect is not objectively blasphemous if the actor does not believe in the authority determining the sanctity of the target, regardless of how rude, boorish or insensitive his conduct may be. Thus, for example, a non-Hindu does not commit blasphemy by eating beef if he does not regard the cow as sacred – any more than a Gentile acts impiously by not observing the mitzvot (commandments), which by definition apply only to Jews. Likewise, a non-Muslim should not be held liable for violating ecclesiastical laws that do not apply to him, regardless of whether Sharia considers him an infidel or a dhimmi subject to its dictates. The concept that “infidels” are governed by Sharia law is culturally presumptuous and entirely irrelevant outside of Muslim society. Presumably, this is why the Resolution in effect seeks international recognition of blasphemy laws.
Muslim countries are not the only ones to have anti-blasphemy laws. Indeed, many Christian nations have had such laws on the books. However, the trend in Christian Europe (with the exception of Ireland) has been to refrain from prosecuting violations of such statutes, or to replace them altogether with laws prohibiting “hate speech” aimed at religious or ethnic minorities. Such laws are certainly problematic from a free-speech perspective, but they are not ecclesiastical in nature and do not serve the same purpose as blasphemy laws in single-faith nations, which is to promote the majority religion to the exclusion of all others. Nevertheless, even neutral hate speech laws can be exploited to advance particular beliefs, a situation that is becoming all too familiar as Europe attempts to appease the religious demands of its growing immigrant population.
The inclination in Western Europe to indulge the sensitivities of its immigrant communities has nothing to do with a genuine respect for religion or minority cultures, especially when compared to the proliferation of antisemitism across the continent. These communities may have the right to immigrate to the west, but they do not have the right to be insulated after their arrival from native speech they find offensive. If the European Union were truly interested in protecting the rights of religious or ethnic minorities, there could be no justification for its complicity in enabling the growth of antisemitism among its member states – or in advancing the pretense that more than one-billion Muslims constitute a global minority in need of special protection. Likewise, there would be no way to excuse the antisemitic exhortations heard in mosques and madrasahs throughout Europe. If the international community truly wants to discourage all forms of ethnic and religious hatred, it would not tolerate or rationalize antisemitism in the Muslim world. The sad reality, however, is that antisemitism is not only tolerated, but encouraged and promoted. Moreover, it is trivialized in scope and effect by comparison to “Islamophobia,” as illustrated by its treatment in the Resolution.
The Resolution refers to “Islamophobia” in conjunction with “Judeophobia,” but significantly fails to use the word “antisemitism” at all. The term “antisemitism” refers to hatred of Jews on religious, ethnic, racial and economic grounds, whereas “Judeophobia” solely implicates religion. The term “Islamophobia” is used to suggest a similar hatred to antisemitism, while the scope of that hatred is minimized by the use of the delimiting word “Judeophobia.” But Muslims are not a minority and have never been targeted for discrimination or genocide as the Jews have been. They comprise a global religious community that is defined neither by race nor ethnicity. Jewish identity, in contrast, has religious and ethnic components, such that the Jews have been persecuted and exterminated not simply for their beliefs, but because of their heritage and ancestry as well.
The danger of the Defamation of Religions Resolution – and indeed of the broader attempt to define objective criticism of religion as hate speech and to discount the horrors of antisemitism – is in its subtle effort to homogenize extremist views that are incompatible with western democratic values. It also bespeaks the ignorance of secular progressives, who ironically would not tolerate any perceived attempts by western governments or religious institutions to control personal beliefs or restrict speech. If quintessential liberal organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union (“ACLU”) are so quick to sue federal and state governments over public holiday displays or the threat of prayer in public schools, their silence concerning the attempt to limit speech regarding religion is troubling. Because the United States was asked to support a U.N. Resolution that appears to favor one religion, it would seem that the ACLU would have wanted to take a public stand consistent with its avowed Constitutional priorities. One could certainly argue that if the United States were to support the U.N. Resolution – and in accordance with it discourage public discourse regarding Islam or any specific religion – the government would indeed be favoring a particular religion in violation of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
The First Amendment clearly states that: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion . . . or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” These two phrases, known as the Separation and Accommodation Clauses, together comprise the Establishment Clause, which prohibits the government from establishing a national religion or favoring a particular faith over any others. While the Accommodation Clause respects the right of individual worship, it only guarantees this right to the extent one’s religious expression does not interfere with the beliefs of others or threaten the integrity of the Separation Clause. Government action in support of a resolution that favors one religion by restricting the right to criticize it would arguably violate these clauses. Furthermore, it would compromise speech by inviting government control over content.
There have already been attempts in the U.S. to control speech and expression through seemingly innocuous hate-crimes legislation. While such laws are generally well-intended, critics have asked whether they open the door to government attempts to criminalize thought; and the question is a legitimate one. Despicable though the actions of a murderer may be, for example, there is a certain illogic in viewing a crime instigated by bigotry as somehow being worse than the identical crime motivated by personal hatred, animus or greed. There is no ideologically pure motive for murder, and in the end the victim is dead regardless of motivation. Thus, the question remains whether it is the crime or the thought behind the crime that is being punished, and whether the analysis of criminal motivation could ever be influenced by partisan political considerations. If it is actually the expression of pure belief that is being criminalized, it is theoretically possible to cast any kind of deliberate expression as a criminal act, including subjective political thought or discourse.
Regardless of the intentions behind hate-crime laws, they nevertheless represent an attempt to regulate thought and expression. The inherent danger lies in the uncertainty of not knowing whether the process for determining what expressions or beliefs constitute hate crimes will be influenced by partisan sensibilities. Those who don’t believe the government would ever directly attempt to control individual thought or belief based on purely political grounds should consider the attempts by liberal Democrats to enact the “Fairness Doctrine” to control media content. The purpose of the Fairness Doctrine is to require media outlets to run opposing (usually liberal) viewpoints with which they disagree in order to counterbalance their own (usually conservative) editorial opinions. This in effect would require the government to dictate the content of speech, not merely regulate use of the airwaves. However, there is a vast difference between Federal Communications Commission rules limiting the use of foul language during non-subscription television and radio broadcasts and Government regulations requiring stations to air specific content.
Considering the potential for governmental intrusion into personal thought and speech represented by hate-crimes legislation and the Fairness Doctrine, American citizens have every reason to question whether their government is capable of making the leap to supporting the unbalanced U.N. Defamation of Religions Resolution, particularly in light of the Obama Administration’s calculated attempts to solicit the Arab-Muslim world and denigrate Israel. Although the United States did not vote for the Defamation of Religions Resolution this year, recent government actions, including the decision of U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to represent a Muslim public school teacher in a lawsuit against her school district, raise concerns for the future.
That lawsuit involves a teacher in the Chicago area who requested an extended leave of absence in order to go on the Hajj to Mecca. The requested leave was reportedly for a period of time that far exceeded the policy contained in the collective bargaining agreement between the teachers’ union and school district. Under various federal and state employment laws, however, an employer may have no obligation to accommodate or continue to employ persons – even members of protected classes – if their special needs and requests make them unfit or unsuited for their jobs. Thus, an employer may deny a request for an extended leave if the collective bargaining agreement makes no provision for the length of time sought, and further may have the right to terminate an employee for taking a leave that violates the terms of the contract – regardless of the underlying reason for the absence.
The teacher in Mr. Holder’s case was certainly free to pursue a claim against the school district if she believed the contract was being enforced unfairly. However, it is difficult to justify the involvement of Mr. Holder and the Justice Department in a civil matter on behalf of an individual against a public school district, particularly when their efforts seek to force the district to conform to the dictates of one religion in possible violation of the U.S. Constitution. It seems doubtful that Mr. Holder would similarly assist a fundamentalist Christian teacher penalized for asserting anti-abortion opinions on or off school property. Thus, his decision to represent the Chicago-area school teacher in a suit involving religion is quite troubling.
International support for the Defamation of Religions Resolution has decreased in recent years, but champions of free speech still should be worried by the responses of secular progressives to doctrinal demands that contravene their own professed political values. The cause for alarm is not simply theoretical, as has been demonstrated by the apparent affinity between European intellectuals and Islamist anti-blasphemy groups, the demands for legislation to outlaw critical speech regarding religion, and the actions of Attorney General Holder and the Department of Justice. Such conduct threatens to erode from within the signature freedoms that have long characterized liberal democracy. While even Constitutional rights in the United States are subject to limitations in the interest of national security and public safety – particularly in times of war or great social unrest – there is no precedent for summarily curbing speech in order to appease the demands of religious minorities who have been welcomed into an American society that has no established religion, but which respects the beliefs of all.
Societies that are governed by democratic principles should not delude themselves into believing that philosophical or religious totalitarianism of any kind can be accommodated in the name of multiculturalism. Generations of immigrants have flocked to western democracies in general – and the United States in particular – precisely because of the unique blend of political freedoms and economic opportunities they afford. However, by accommodating philosophies that reject the basic freedoms of speech, belief and thought, politically correct progressives debase and compromise those very freedoms and opportunities. If left unchecked, the failure to safeguard western political values could portend the decline of democratic society.
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