An Islamist wave in North Africa followed by the recent violence over an incendiary anti-Islam video clip and new Prophet Mohammad cartoons have revived an old call for an international law that criminalises religious defamation.
On September 17, when Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah added his powerful voice to the chorus of denunciations regarding a controversial anti-Islam film, he reignited a diplomatic debate that had been making the rounds for over a decade.
Addressing tens of thousands of supporters in a southern suburb of Beirut, the leader of the Lebanese Shiite movement called for an international law against religious defamation.
"All our people and governments must put pressure on the international community to issue international and national laws to criminalise insults of the three world religions," said Nasrallah, referring to Christianity, Islam and Judaism.
Nasrallah also called on Lebanon to request an emergency Arab League meeting to discuss the amateur video clip titled “Innocence of Muslim,” which was posted on YouTube.
Shortly after his address ended, the Lebanese government issued a statement that Foreign Minister Adnan Mansour had requested such a meeting of the 22-member bloc.
Nasrallah’s comments raised eyebrows among seasoned Middle East experts. The fiery Hezbollah chief after all is not known for his diplomatic niceties, nor does he have a reputation for engaging with the minutiae of international legal instruments.
But within international legal and policy circles that have grappled with this issue -- and at times fought a bitter fight -- Nasrallah’s comments were noted with disquiet.
“This issue has been around for a while,” explained Clive Baldwin, senior legal advisor at the New York-based Human Rights Watch. “There was a long discussion about this at the UN for more than a decade, when some states were trying to push for the defamation of religion to be included as a human rights issue. In the end, all the states agreed to drop the idea.”
A 12-year heated international debate
At the heart of the matter was a campaign by the 57-nation Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) to include the thorny religious defamation issue in a UN Human Rights Council resolution.
The Saudi Arabia-based organisation argued that criticising religions is a violation of the rights of believers and leads to discrimination and violence against them.
Critics, however, maintained that an international blasphemy law could be used in certain countries to silence and intimidate religious minorities, dissenters and human rights activists. It would also restrict freedom of religion and expression, they argued.
After 12 years of diplomatic wrangling, the OIC finally dropped their campaign when a compromise deal was hammered out by the Obama administration last year, resulting in UN Human Rights Council Resolution 16/18, which switches the focus from protecting beliefs to protecting believers.
Arab uprisings: A confluence of events
But over the past few months, a confluence of events has sparked renewed calls to reopen the debate.
The recent deadly protests over the “Innocence of Muslims” clip come at a time when Islamist parties and movements have gained power following the 2011 Arab uprisings.
In media interviews given shortly after protesters attacked the US Embassy in Tunis last week, Rachid Ghannouchi, leader of the Tunisian Islamist Ennadha movement, revisited the international blasphemy law theme.
“We need the UN to adopt a law criminalizing the violation of the sacred, " Ghannouchi told a local radio station.
On the domestic front, the Ennadha movement has introduced a controversial draft law to the National Constituent Assembly that would criminalise offenses against “sacred values”.
Ghannouchi’s public arguments for the law have included attacks against the US -- which lobbies heavily for freedom of expression protections in international forums -- as well as the US secretary of state. “Hillary Clinton has said that there are no laws in the United States (criminalizing the violation of the sacred). This is not normal," he told another local radio station.
Another powerful voice calling for an international law that would criminalise blasphemy has been the grand imam of Egypt’s influential Al Azhar mosque, Sheik Ahmed el-Tayeb.
A day before meeting with visiting French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius in the Egyptian capital of Cairo this week, Tayeb said he would ask Fabius to support such a measure at the UN.
But while condemning the incendiary YouTube video as “stupid and insulting,” Fabius noted the reluctance of France -- like most Western countries that have defended freedom of expression -- to criminalize the defamation of religions. "We must avoid any provocations. But preventative action is tricky because in a secular state, there’s the law and there’s faith. It’s the individual, not religion, who must be protected by the law,” Fabius told reporters in Cairo.
Laws used by the powerful against the powerless
The growing calls for an international blasphemy law has alarmed activists from several secular, religious and civil rights groups that have engaged in a long fight against such a measure.
“I think this debate might be reignited and it’s an unfortunate development,” said Arch Puddington, vice president of research at Freedom House, a New York-based watchdog group that has campaigned against an international defamation of religion law.
“The idea of having a global international blasphemy law is a terrible idea,” he added. “I think it’s important for countries such as the US and France to stand firm behind the freedom of expression.”
Puddington warns that a basic problem with such a law is the definition of what constitutes religious defamation.
“We have to bear in mind that in some cases, those who propose the laws have a rather sweeping interpretation of what constitutes blasphemy,” he noted.
One of the earliest state promoters of an international “combating defamation of religions” law has been Pakistan, an OIC member state that has been repeatedly criticised for its notorious blasphemy laws, which unfairly target minorities as well as critics of the law – including leading politicians – with deadly consequences.
“The important point to bear in mind is that these laws of defamation are used by the powerful against the powerless,” said Human Rights Watch’s Baldwin.
According to Puddington, the latest moves by Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and Tunisia’s Ennadha to turn the spotlight on legislating against blasphemy are often made with cynical domestic calculations. “It’s the easiest way for the political leadership of these countries to deflect a domestic debate, which is who’s the most pious Muslim – groups like the Muslim Brotherhood or the Salafist groups,” he said.
When contacted by FRANCE 24, OIC officials, however, maintained that it was too early to say if the organisation would formally seek any legal changes to international frameworks following the recent disturbances.
“The first step would be to examine the existing legal structures to see if there are problems, and then may be there would be reason to re-examine them,” said OIC spokesman Rizwan Sheikh.
But he conceded that top OIC officials were holding “high level meetings” over “this unfortunate incident”, said Sheikh, referring to the YouTube posting of “Innocence of Muslims”.
For his part, Puddington maintains that, regardless of the outcome of these latest discussions, the damage has already been done.
“The people on the streets demonstrating against a book or film or work of art deemed offensive have often not read the book or seen the film,” said Puddington. “And those on the fringes – like the creator of this [“Innocence of Muslims”] video or the preacher [Terry] Jones [who achieved notoriety with his plan to burn Korans] – won’t be affected, they will simply continue doing such things.”