Islamic organisation adjusts position on hate speech
JEDDAH - When members of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and Western diplomats promised in 2011 in Istanbul to meet annually to discuss the United Nations’ anti-hate crime Resolution 16/18, few were confident that such sessions would continue.
Yet the OIC recently hosted in Jeddah the fifth such meeting, now known as the Istanbul Process. The Istanbul Process was established to address tension in communities and combat religious hatred and negative stereotypes. The session also focused on strengthening the resolution and bringing creating a consensus among member states for implementation.
Equally important was that the event marked a milestone for the OIC, which had attempted since 1999 to convince the United Nations to pass meaningful anti-discrimination and anti-hate crime resolutions.
The UN Human Rights Commission’s (UNHCR) Resolution 16/18 is a starting point for member countries to implement anti-discrimination laws. Its success since 2011 has been incremental with a focus on outreach and interfaith cooperation. Implementation of the resolution has become especially urgent since the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris and the rise of the Islamic State(ISIS), which has sparked a wave of anti-Islam hate speech in the United States and Europe.
While the OIC may bask in its achievement, Marc Limon, executive director of the Universal Rights Group, put the resolution in context, noting that it is a “fragile achievement” and “difficult to maintain a consensus” among countries. It is also an achievement that falls far short of what OIC members had sought, which was the underlying argument among some Jeddah meeting participants.
The OIC each year from 1999 through 2010 sponsored anti-blasphemy resolutions in the UN General Assembly and with the UNHCR. Western nations, particularly the United States, opposed the resolutions.
The United Nations wanted a resolution to address religious discrimination and hate speech through education and outreach. The approach protects individuals from discrimination and religious hate instead of punishing people who defame religions.
It was a compromise the OIC was willing to make when it endorsed Resolution 16/18, but to some participants, it was a less than adequate solution.
A key conflict between the wishes of the OIC and countries with unfettered free speech laws is the definition of hate speech. Western nations prefer laws that criminalise speech that incites violence and intentionally advocates violent actions against specific religions. There is little support outside Muslim countries to criminalise hate speech that offends individuals who may react violently.
OIC Secretary-General Iyad bin Amin Madani acknowledged in comments to told the Jeddah participants: that,“I recognise that proponents of freedom of expression legitimately argue that prohibition on free expression would lead to a reversal of many of the positive democratic developments in the contemporary world.”
But he noted: “I tend to humbly disagree when this freedom is stretched into the realm of hate speech. I fail to understand how the right to offend or to insult, discriminate or negatively stereotype can produce a positive outcome.”
Success in implementing Resolution 16/18 has been modest. The United States has conducted workshops in Greece, Indonesia and Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Local community programmes in the United States have resulted in quick responses to anti-Muslim events.
Among other incidents, interfaith leaders quickly addressed a recent anti-Islamic protest in Arizona, that easing tensions.
Involving religious leaders is a key component of Resolution 16/18. To most Jeddah participants, cooperation among major religious leaders to foster solidarity during crises, particularly violent incidents of global significance, is an obvious path to solve conflicts. Yet questions remain on how to achieve a balance that best represents people victimised by discrimination. Few member states agree on what constitutes representative religious leadership.
Marie Juul Petersen, researcher for the Danish Human Rights Institute, pointed out that the overwhelming majority of religious leaders are male, meaning there are few female voices. Some sects are not represented at all, she said. In addition, communities at the local level must wrestle with which religious interpretations to accept.
Amira Kashgari, a Saudi journalist and academic, objected to the inclusion of any religious leaders.
“Religious leaders are not the solution because they add fuel to the conflict,” Kashgari said. “The public obeys them, and they should not be the source in solving conflicts.”
Despite the hurdles, including obtaining better representation among the OIC’s 57 members at future Istanbul Process sessions, the OIC has fared better had more success in its task to combat hate speech since it recognised that its anti-blasphemy stance had become too controversial because of the limits it puts on free speech.
By abandoning that position, Madani of the OIC said Istanbul Process participants now use “a consensual approach that shuns the ideological divide and suggest an action-oriented policy framework”.