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A Closer Look at the World Conference Against Racism -- and Why the U.S. Boycott Is Counterproductive

The agenda in Geneva will likely be less about human rights than institutionalized intolerance. But the U.S. refusal to attend does nothing to help.
 
 
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This week in Geneva, the United Nations is holding what it calls the Durban Review Conference (a.k.a. "Durban II") to "evaluate progress towards the goals set by the World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance in Durban, South Africa, in 2001." Part of the agenda at Durban II will be the recently passed resolution entitled "Combating Defamation of Religions." The resolution, among other things, "[s]tresses the need to effectively combat defamation of all religions and incitement to religious hatred, against Islam and Muslims in particular." In practical terms, it calls upon Western countries to pass laws prohibiting 'insults' to Islam (and other religions, theoretically) as part of a larger struggle against racism. But hardly anyone in the West seems to think this is a good idea. The opposition to the resolution is making some strange bedfellows, uniting opposition from Christian activists to secular humanists, from Lou Dobbs to the Obama administration.

Every year or so, a resolution Combating Defamation of Religion is floated by a member of the OIC; the first incarnation was Pakistan's "Defamation of Islam" draft resolution in 1999, which passed through the Commission of Human Rights. Since 2005, the resolution has been passed by the general assembly three times, and each time, the language becomes a little more inclusive. But the goal remains the same: to pressure Western governments to pass the kind of blasphemy laws which would outlaw insults to Islam typified by the Danish Muhammad cartoons or the Islamophobia of the right-wing media. In this sense, it's not surprising that free-speech advocates are against this alongside reactionary elements who claim that this resolution is the beginning of a Muslim conspiracy to impose sharia law in the United States.

The latest draft resolution, which is non-binding (not that the more hysterical Westerners care), is the culmination of a two-decade campaign by a group of majority-Muslim governments called the Organization of the Islamic Conference, founded in 1969 in Morocco. The OIC is a permanent observer at the UN and has a parallel structure to the UN itself; the OIC has a secretary general and forms committees and programs to foster ties and development among its memeber states. But the most striking parallel to the UN is that the OIC has issued its own universal declaration of human rights -- the 1990 Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam (CDHRI), intended as a response to the UN's 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). As one might expect, Cairo outlines a different spin on which human rights are actually universal from those liberal internationalists who founded the United Nations.

Right off the bat, the differences between the two human rights declarations become clear. THE UNDHR's first article says, "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights." The CDHRI's first article says, "All human beings form one family whose members are united by their subordination to Allah and descent from Adam. All men are equal in terms of basic human dignity and basic obligations and responsibilities, without any discrimination on the basis of race, colour, language, belief, sex, religion, political affiliation, social status or other considerations. The true religion is the guarantee for enhancing such dignity along the path to human integrity." It goes on to say, "All human beings are Allah's subjects … no one has superiority over another except on the basis of piety and good deeds."

There is a direct line between the CDHRI and the resolutions Combating Religious Defamation (CDoR). After the OIC and the UN's Commission on Human Rights organized a seminar entitled "Enriching the Universality of Human Rights: Islamic Perspectives on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights" in 1998, the first CDoR was passed in the Commission without a vote. (This first resolution also celebrates, with tragic irony, "the year 2001 as the United Nations Year of Dialogue among Civilizations.")

The problem with the UDHR is that it posits that individuals have civil liberties, but it doesn't explain why we should. Similarly, the U.S. Declaration of Independence says it holds truths to be self-evident and that all men are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, which has the effect of rooting those rights in theology. Likewise, the Cairo declaration says, "fundamental rights and freedoms according to Islam are an integral part of the Islamic religion and that no one shall have the right as a matter of principle to abolish them either in whole or in part or to violate or ignore them in as much as they are binding divine commands." If we base our liberties on our religious tradition, it seems hypocritical for us not to let others base their liberties on theirs.

In truth, most Westerners don't have a fully realized conception of why we have civil liberties in the first place, save that it's the law. I know I didn't until I got to college and read the works of John Stuart Mill. Mill, who wrote in mid-nineteenth century England, recognized that merely having a democracy was no guarantee of freedom, particularly for minorities. As the saying goes, democracy is three wolves and a sheep deciding what's for dinner. Mill's writings on civil liberties have everything to do with the protection of minorities and the preservation of the right to express unpopular or even blasphemous opinions. In fact, Mill (who was deeply religious) spends a good deal of his argument for civil liberties arguing that even atheists, who could not be more opposed to his conception of the 'Truth', deserved freedom from prosecution. And the reason was not that God granted them the liberty to speak -- rather, the whole point of free discourse is to allow Truth to be tested and proven. He brings up the example of the 1857 jailing of a professed atheist as an example of the failings of the government to protect both liberty and free discourse.

The impulse that declares an idea needs more protection than a human being lays bare the implicit weakness of that idea. The tragedy of this is that the preamble to the CDR is absolutely correct; there is a growing wave of Islamophobia in the West that is intimately connected to racism and xenophobia. The rising fear and intolerance of Muslim minorities in non-Muslim countries and the invasions and occupations of several Islamic lands such as Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Kashmir, and Chechnya by non-Muslim powers all contribute to a sort of siege mentality evidenced not only by the resolutions sponsored by the OIC but in their citizenry. Although the original resolution Combating Defamation of Religions was proposed in 1999, the rise in discrimination and general Islamophobia after 9/11 lent a certain creedence to the OIC's claims of a worldwide hostility towards Islam. The Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten's 2005 printing of a collection of cartoons featuring Islam's holiest figure beside Allah himself, the prophet Muhammad, seemed to be a breaking point on the Arab street. Worldwide riots erupted -- dozens of people were killed, embassies were burned to the ground, and Denmark lost 30 percent of its export market to a boycott of its products in the Muslim world.

One of the problems with blasphemy laws is that they don't work in multicultural democracies, because the optimal government structure for enforcing these laws is a hegemonic theocracy. How does a government draws the line between criticism and defamation of a religion without becoming a religious authority itself? More importantly, how can exclusive religions coexist in a legal framework that outlaws blasphemy? All the inclusive, liberal-style language of the CDoR could become awfully dangerous in the hands of lawyers. I don't think it's a stretch to imagine that any Muslim ought to be charged with defamation having published or publicly affirmed that there is no god but Allah. Similarly, denying the divinity or even the trinity of the Christian god was an eminently punishable offense during the Inquisition, as the descendants of Spanish Jews and Muslims well recall. As author Ethan David Miller once said, "once you stop the inquiry, you start the Inquisition."

Western liberal democracies say they hold freedom of expression sacrosanct, but our history of free speech is rather complex. To begin with, the idea that people should not be randomly murdered or otherwise punished for blaspheming is ahistorical at best. Massachussetts, home of the Salem witch trials, famously keeps its anti-blasphemy law on the books. It wasn't until 1952 that the Supreme Court declared New York's blasphemy laws unconstitutional in Joseph Burstyn, Inc v. Wilson, which concerned the censorship of a Roberto Rosselini film on the grounds that it was sacreligious. There are still plenty of Americans who believe that flag desecration should be made illegal -- including New York's former Senator Hillary Clinton, who made a point of co-sponsoring such legislation 53 years after her adpoted state's blasphemy laws were struck down. Denmark, home of the Muhammad cartoon controversy, investigated the offending newspaper under its own laws prohibiting the defamation of religion (no charges were brought). America doesn't have a state religion like Saudi Arabia or Egypt, but when it comes to the secular religion of patriotism, the flag evidently arouses the same passions as the prophet Muhammad does for Muslims. (That's why the word 'desecration' is used.) Hillary Clinton's Senate bill sought the protection of Old Glory from anti-American demonstrators in the same way the OIC seeks to protect Muhammad from cartoonists. Now that's she's the Secretary of State, you'd think she'd be able to identify some common ground with the OIC here, but the U.S. is boycotting the Durban II Conference until the CDoR and the general anti-Israel tone of the proceedings is eliminated.

So, what should the role of the United States be? After all, we withdrew even from observer status on the Commission on Human Rights. We are boycotting the  Durban II conference. No one know how the conference will turn out without the United States, but we do know what happened in Durban in the summer of 2001. The conference focused its attention almost exclusively on the military actions of Israel in the Occupied Territories, in the words of former Canadian Foreign Minister Maxime Bernier, "degenerated into open and divisive expressions of intolerance," which included several participating organizations selling copies of "Mein Kampf" and "Protocols of the Elders of Zion" outside the convention halls. The OIC operates as a bloc intent on castigating Israel (whose record on human rights during the occupation is certainly deplorable) to the exclusion of any other human rights agenda. Though Israel's occupation may be brutal, the nations of the OIC have successfully evaded discussion of racism or religious intolerance within their own borders. Amnesty International and other human rights groups have extensive documentation of the imprisonment and/or execution of a great many citizens whose actions were judged an insult to Islam in almost every OIC member state. Many human rights activists feel that the ultimate purpose of the CDR is not to impose restrictions on free speech in the West (it seems virtually impossible for the Security Council to pass a binding resolution along those lines) but to provide cover for the blasphemy laws and prosecutions within OIC countries.

With all this in mind, there is a certain hope that Muslim nations have begun a long journey towards a more liberal democracy, the same way America did. First you recognize some very difficult principles to live up to (like mandating equality while condoning slavery) and then you work on fulfilling those great promises over the course of generations. The fact that the Cairo Declaration condemns torture is of as little comfort to today's generation of prisoners as the promises of the Declaration of Independence were to Thomas Jefferson's slaves. The democracies of revolutionary France and America, for all their present glory, weren't that much worse than the Revolutionary Islamic Republic of Iran today when they were that age.

But the attendees of the World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance won't be hearing any of that from us. Instead, they will likely be focusing on a narrow agenda that has increasingly less to do with actual human rights and more to do with institutionalized intolerance and politically-minded finger-pointing. By giving up our voice, even in the face of all the procedural and structural flaws in the system, we give up the means to make any of this better. The latest resolution passed in the General Assembly by 86-53, with 42 abstentions. It was literally the inaction of those abstaining UN members that allowed this resolution to continue on the path to being a binding resolution, which is the stated goal of the OIC. Our opposition may be strong (no binding resolution can pass without the support of the U.S. in the Security Council) but it's intellectually toothless. The fact that we refuse to engage in the process is, in a certain sense, undemocratic. If the history of democracy shows us anything, it's that only through participation in dialogue is there any hope for making democracy safe for minorities in particular, or the world a better place in general.