Islamism Grows Stronger at the United Nations
By David Littman
In recent years, representatives of some Muslim states have demanded, and often received, special treatment at the United Nations mostly via the Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR). As a result, non-diplomatic terms such as "blasphemy" and "defamation of Islam" have seeped into the United Nations system, leading to a situation in which non-Muslim governments accept certain rules of conduct in conformity with Islamic law (the Shari`a) and acquiesce to a self-imposed silence regarding issues touching on Islam. This pattern of behavior has emerged with regard to a host of issues – Salman Rushdie, Muslim antisemitism, Islamic alternatives to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), a "defamation of Islam" resolution, and the actions of the Sudanese government.
The United Nations took little interest when Ayatollah Khomeini issued an edict in February 1989 that condemned British writer Salman Rushdie to death for his novel, The Satanic Verses, which is "in opposition to Islam, the Prophet, and the Qur’an" as the edict affirms; if anything most member states tried to ignore the whole episode. It took four full years before the greatest freedom-of-expression case of our time found an even implicit mention in a UNCHR resolution (the one that annually criticizes Iran for human rights violations):
This attitude of indifference embolded member states of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) sympathetic to the enhancement of the Shari`a, and they proceeded to try to introduce Khomeini-style restrictions on freedom of speech about certain political aspects of Islam to the United Nations itself. Thus did the "Rushdie rules" begin affecting U.N. bodies, and especially the Commission on Human Rights, eating away at international norms.
“Human Rights in Islam”
The Cairo Declaration. On August 5, 1990, the 19th Islamic Conference of Foreign Ministers adopted the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam (CDHRI). The CDHRI is very precise: according to the official English version, “All the rights and freedoms stipulated in this Declaration are subject to the Islamic Shari’a,” (article 24) and “The Islamic Shari’a is the only source of reference for the explanation or clarification of any of the articles of this Declaration” (article 25). In other words, by establishing Shari'a law as “the only source of reference” for the protection of human rights in Islamic countries, the Cairo Declaration gives it supremacy over the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
In spite of this self-evident contradiction between the CDHRI and the UDHR,
the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights published the former
document in December 1997, 5
thereby seeming to give it a certain authority within the United Nations.
And, sure enough, the CDHRI then became a quotable source at the United
Nations. For example, the twenty-six members of the Sub-Commission
on Human Rights referred to it in the preamble to a resolution adopted
on August 21, 1998, on the situation of women in Afghanistan:
Deeply concerned at the situation of the female population of Kabul and other parts of Afghanistan controlled by the Taliban; dismayed by the Taliban’s claim that Islam supports their policies concerning women; fully aware that the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam, adopted by the Organization of the Islamic Conference in 1990, guarantees the rights of women in all fields. … 6
No Muslim Antisemitism
The governments of the Organization of the Islamic Conference reached a decision in 1996 at their summit held in Tehran that Ambassador Munir Akram of Pakistan would later explain to the Commission on Human Rights as calling for "pragmatic and contructive steps to counter the negative propaganda against Islam; to remove and rectify misunderstandings; and to present the true image of Islam: the religion of peace and tolerance." 9
Four months later, the OIC began to apply this decision at the United Nations.
On the very last day of the UNCHR’s 1997 session, the representative of
Indonesia, Agus Tarmidzi, speaking on behalf of the OIC countries, took
the floor to protest a passage in a report by Benin’s Maurice Glélé-Ahanhanzo,
the U.N. special rapporteur on racism. Focusing on information under
the subheading "Islamist and Arab Anti-Semitism," the Indonesian ambassador
referred to a quotation from a book on antisemitism that reads:
The use of Christian and secular European antisemitic motifs in Muslim publications is on the rise, yet at the same time, Muslim extremists are turning increasingly to their own religious sources, first and foremost the Qur’an, as a primary anti-Jewish source.10
Express[ed] its indignation and protest at the content of such an offensive reference to Islam and the Holy Qur'an; affirmed that this offensive reference should have been excluded from the report; requested the Chairman to ask the special rapporteur to take corrective action in response to the present decision.11
Interestingly, not one of these representatives attempted to refute the "outrageous reference"; heeping scorn on it and making sure it was not repeated sufficed for them. Perhaps their reluctance to deal with the facts of the matter has to do with the irrefutable evidence that Islamists constantly use religious sources for what is spoken and written critically on the subject of Jews in Arabic and Persian. Thus the accusation of "blasphemy" amounts to an attempt to make special rapporteurs excercise self-censorship.
And, indeed, such self-censorship has occurred, as can be seen in the 1999 report of the special rapporteur on racism, where the subheading which caused the furor in 1997, "Islamist and Arab anti-Semitism," is now conspicuously absent.14 Although Glélé-Ahanhanzo again refers to the same Israeli publication as he did in 1997, he omits any reference to its twenty-five pages on antisemitism in Arab countries and Iran.15 In fact, he does not even mention any evidence of antisemitism in the Muslim world.
"Defamation of Islam"
In contrast to the last-minute efforts in 1997, the OIC countries began their efforts to pass a resolution (under the agenda item "Racism") condemning what they called the "Defamation of Islam" right at the start of the UNHCR’s 1999 session. They claimed—in negotiations with the European Union (EU), the United States, and other delegations—that "Islam, one of the principal religions of the world, is being slandered in different quarters, including in human rights fora." 16 On behalf of the OIC countries, Pakistan's Ambassador Akram on April 29, 1999, introduced draft resolution L.40, entitled the "Defamation of Islam." To justify this text, he compared "the emergence of a new manifestation of intolerance and misunderstanding and misconception of Islam and Muslim peoples in various parts of the world" to "antisemitism in the years of the past."
Akram built his argument in part on the 1997 "blasphemy" decision: "It has already been claimed that Islamic scriptures incite Muslims to violence. This assertion was even included in a human rights report and excised only after the commission acted on this blasphemy." 17 More assertively, Akram made large claims for his religion : "It was Islam which gave the world the first Charter of Human Rights in the Holy Qur'an; the Declaration of Human Rights in Prophet Muhammed's last address; and the first Refugee Convention in the mithâq-i-Medina [Constitution of Medina]."18
The Western countries refused, however, to accept a resolution that had the provocative title of "Defamation of Islam." As Germany's Ambassador Wilhelm Höynck put it, on behalf of the European Union: the OIC's draft resolution was selective in nature, focusing "exclusively on what its authors perceive as a negative stereotyping of Islam." Attempts to find a compromise between the two sides were getting nowhere, leading to a threat from Pakistan's ubiquitious ambassador that if the EU and others maintained their position "this will have a lasting impact in the Muslim world." 19 Both sides preferred to avoid a vote - with its unpredictable repercussions – so Höynck, noting that "the European Union is attached to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, as well as to tolerance for all religions," proposed as a title: "Stereotyping of Religions." This the OIC refused.
Finally the two sides reached a compromise: the title of what became Commission Resolution 1999/82 would be "Defamation of Religions" and the text would not refer exclusively to Islam. 20 Despite this apparent compromise, no one will be misled as to the intent of this resolution. Islam is the only religion mentioned in the text (a preambular paragraph refers to the seminar on "Islamic Perspectives on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights" in November 1998) and the operative paragraph also expresses "deep concern that Islam is frequently and wrongly associated with human rights violations and with terrorism." Thus, a Reuters dispatch dated April 30, 1999, reported that "The UN Speaks against Anti-Islam in the Media," and went on to explain that the UNCHR "expressed concern … that Islam was often wrongly blamed for being behind crimes and terrorist acts." The Reuters news item also (correctly) noted that this "was the first time that the panel had adopted a text on defamation of religion."
The case of Sudan’s behavior illustrates how concepts such as the "defamation of Islam" have progressed at the UNCHR and affected decisionmaking there. Back in 1994, the Sudanese ambassador circulated a letter to all representatives at the UNCHR accusing the U.N. special rapporteur on Sudan, Gaspar Biro, of making an "vicious attack on the religion of Islam" because portions of his first report indicated inconsistencies between the international human rights conventions (to which Sudan has been a signatory party since 1986) and some provisions of Sudan's Criminal Act of 1991 which follow the Shari`a.21 However, with no backing from the OIC, the Sudanese government got precisely nowhere; the commission called on it "to comply with applicable international human rights instruments." 22
Five years later, the situation had changed completely. When John Garang, chairman of the Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Movement (SPLM) and head of the Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Army (SPLA), the southern, mostly Christian rebel force fighting the government of Sudan and its Shari`a law since 1983, appeared at the UNCHR on March 23, 1999, he was prevented from speaking by the Sudanese representatives. Although Garang had been properly accredited by a non-governmental organization (Christian Solidarity International), before he could reach the second sentence of his speech, on "the genocidal character of the war waged by the present regime in Khartoum," the Sudanese representative stopped him on a "point of order." The chair ruled Garang in order. Then Sudan requested a vote and, after a few exchanges and a recess, the chair gave Garang the floor, only to rule him out of order on a point of procedure (namely, that "the statement being made by the representative of CSI was not germane to the agenda item").
Technically speaking, the Sudanese government had a point: CSI had made
two minor errors (Garang's statement was not as integrated into the agenda
item as the rules of procedure required and his statement was distributed
on SPLM letterhead, not CSI's). With this, the most important leader of
the southern Sudanese people was silenced, unable to ask the UNCHR plenum
what just one day earlier he had asked an audience of representatives from
governments and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and at a press conference:
In 1992 the regime in Khartoum declared jihad against the people of southern Sudan and the Nuba Mountains. Since then jihad has been declared again and again. I ask this very important question: is the jihad a religious right of those who declare and wage it, or is it a violation of the human rights of the people against whom it is declared and waged?23
This is a precedent of considerable importance, for it is often by votes on relatively minor issues such as this that one sees which way the wind is blowing at the United Nations. Whatever the committee may choose to do on this issue; The ECOSOC verdict on CSI is likely to have long-lasting repercussions among the NGOs.
The new rules of conduct being imposed by the OIC, and acceded to by other
states, give those who claim to represent Islam an exceptional status at
the United Nations that has no legal basis and no precedent; it therefore
gives ample reason for apprehension. Will a prohibition of discussion
about certain political aspects of Islam become generally accepted at the
United Nations and beyond, contradicting "the right to freedom of opinion
and expression" promised by Article XIX of the Universal Declaration of
Human Rights? Unless farsighted states, both Muslim and non-Muslim, make
it their business to assert and reassert the need for freedom of speech,
this precious liberty is at risk of being eroded throughout the system
of international organizations.
1 UNCHR Resolution 1993/62,