International Institute for Religious Freedom

Efforts on to Weaken Hope in Muslim World

IIRF Research and Analysis Report


A group of 57 states with large Islamic populations, known as the Organization of the Islamic Conference, has introduced resolutions condemning defamation of religions at the UN every year.

Islamic countries have opposed reforms under the garb of fighting “Islamophobia” for over a decade. They have overseen the passage of numerous resolutions against “defamation of religions” at the United Nations General Assembly and the Human Rights Council since 1999 seeking legitimacy for and promoting restriction of the freedom of speech in nations. This month, they are putting forward another such resolution for voting at the General Assembly which can have serious ramifications for the freedom of expression and religion especially in the Muslim world.

A group of 57 states with large Islamic populations, known as the Organization of the Islamic Conference, has introduced resolutions condemning defamation of religions at the UN every year. These declarations – which allege a systematic attack on Islam after the 9/11 attacks in the US – urge governments around the world to enact special laws to ban any speech that would insult, criticize or offend any person’s religion, particularly Islam. Though non-binding thus far, these resolutions are gradually empowering Islamic governments to oppose the growing demand for democracy and associated rights by their people besides paving the way for a legally binding international ban on criticism of religion.

Most governments of these Islamic nations seem to be caught between a growing popular demand for political reforms and an increasing resistance to the Western-style democracy by hardline Muslim groups, both non-violent and violent. In other words, movements for and against democracy are visible in the Muslim world. However, the Saudi Arabia-based-and-dominated Islamic Conference – which projects itself as a central authority for the entire Islamic community, the Muslim Ummah – is snubbing progressive Muslims and siding with the hardliners.

Recent elections and developments in many Muslim-majority countries, especially in Asia, indicate that the people are seeking moderation and tolerance in their societies – a glimmer of hope – but at the same time extremist groups are also mounting pressure on the governments to remain socially and religiously conservative. This can be seen in Pakistan, Bangladesh, the Maldives, Afghanistan and Indonesia among other nations.

The people of Pakistan voted against Nawaz Sharif’s right-wing Muslim League party in the 2008 general elections, and supported the centrist Pakistan People’s Party led by Asif Ali Zardari, who is now the President. One of the pledges Zardari had made during the elections was to repeal the blasphemy law. Zardari seems fairly moderate in his religious views, but at the UN, his government not only votes in favour of but also initiates resolutions meant to promote blasphemy laws. This is understandable because Saudi Arabia’s backing is crucial for Islamabad which has to face its enemy India, its giant neighbour.

Zardari is also helpless before the right-leaning military of Pakistan and the intelligence agency, Inter-Services Intelligence, or the ISI, which are visibly Islamists and more powerful than the civilian government. Given the weakness of the government, persecution of Shi’a and Ahmadi minorities as well as that of Christians and Hindus has increased in the recent years. And what has fuelled the harassment of these minorities is the country’s blasphemy law (Section 295 and 298 of the Pakistan Penal Code).

Over 10 accused under this law have been murdered before the completion of their trial. On November 7, a Pakistani court sentenced to death a young Christian woman, Asia Bibi, in Punjab province for alleged blasphemy. Also, last July, at least nine Christians were killed and over 45 houses were burned in a Christian hamlet in Korian village of Gojra town in central Punjab over a rumour that some pages of the Quran were burnt. The attackers, masked and carrying sophisticated guns, were believed to be from an Islamist militant outfit, the Sipah-e-Sahaba, linked to the Afghan Taliban. Its offshoot, the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, is believed to be the al-Qaeda’s front in Pakistan.

In Bangladesh, an alliance led by Sheikh Hasina’s leftist Awami League party won 263 of the 300 contested seats in parliament in the 2008 general elections. The Islamist Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami party (an ally of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party) won only two seats, which shows a lack of popular support to Islamist extremism in the country.

Also, on June 29, 2010, the Supreme Court of Bangladesh scrapped the 1979 Fifth Amendment to the Constitution, which allowed formation of religious political parties and legitimised military rule. However, Hasina, seemingly under pressure and to play a safe game, may not fully implement the court’s ruling which can potentially ban Islamist parties.

In 2008, the Maldives (the only nation after Saudi Arabia that claims a 100-percent Muslim population) became a presidential democracy with moderate Muslim and democracy activist Mohamed Nasheed as the new President. Multi-party democracy came after 30 years of dictatorial rule by conservative President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. Nasheed’s party, the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) is seen as a relatively liberal Muslim party. However, Gayoom’s conservative Dhivehi Raiyyathunge Party has a simple majority in the 77-member People’s Majlis (Maldives’ unicameral Parliament) and opposes the largely liberal policies of Nasheed’s government. Even the Muslim brotherhood party of the Maldives, the Adhaalath Party – an ally of the ruling MDP – opposes reforms in the Muslim society that Nasheed wants to bring in.

In Afghanistan, which was ruled by the radical Islamist Taliban regime from 1996 until the US military operation in 2001, President Hamid Karzai has emphasised the importance of human rights, especially for women, and remains the head of the government for over eight years. While the Taliban seem to have gained control over most parts of the country outside Kabul, they do not represent the people of Afghanistan who are generally moderate. However, “moderate” Karzai has not been able to amend the Afghan Press Laws that prohibit criticism of Islam and a law that makes apostasy a crime punishable by death.

In August 2010, the Taliban killed eight foreign medical workers in a remote northeast region. The killing came soon after a video telecast of underground Christian prayer meetings on Afghanistan’s Noorin TV. The names and faces of Afghan Christian converts were also shown which sparked riots and demonstrations throughout the country. Under pressure from extremist groups, Karzai promised strict action against underground Christian activities. A member of parliament called for Afghan Christians to be executed, publicly. The Karzai government banned some Christian aid agencies on accusations of missionary activities.

A similar trend can be seen in Indonesia – home to the world’s largest Muslim population. This Southeast Asian nation is built on Pancasila, five principles: belief in the one and only God; just and civilized humanity; the unity of Indonesia; democracy guided by the inner wisdom in the unanimity arising out of deliberations amongst representatives; and social justice for the all of the people. However, attacks on Christians and forced closure of churches are increasing thanks to the growth of extremist groups such as the Islamic People’s Forum and the Islamic Defenders Front. While some local officials have been found to be colluding with extremist groups, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is known as a fairly progressive politician. But he remains weak and hasn’t been able to control the growing Islamist vigilante violence.

Even as large sections of Muslims are striving to bring change in their nations, the UN resolutions led by the Islamic Conference give more teeth to the State for religious repression and even greater political and social control, undermining those who want to promote democracy and tolerance. Since there is no one, acceptable-by-all definition of defamation of religions, the inevitable ambiguity can be exploited by Islamic regimes to resist even legitimate, democratic political opposition.

There is little room for doubt that the forces that are pushing the issue of defamation of religions at the UN actually want to resist demands by the modern world as well as by its own people and minorities for democracy and rights, including religious freedom. Also visible is their agenda against Muslim minorities, converts and reformers – the three entities Islamist groups and regimes hate the most.

However, as rights groups are lobbying UN member states, the support for the resolutions is constantly declining. Therefore, more non-Islamic Conference nations need to be briefed about the real intent behind these motions and the possible outcomes of their passage. Only then will it be possible to defeat the declarations each time they come up for voting.

This should be done urgently because the resolutions on defamation of religions also seek to export blasphemy laws to other countries, including in the West. While religious freedom is seen as belonging to an individual in the developed world, these decrees want religion itself to have rights – violating the very basis on which human rights stand.