Beliefnet
Progressive Revival

World leaders gathering at the United Nations this week for a special session of the General Assembly to advance interfaith dialogue should have no illusions that their efforts will miraculously promote mutual respect between religious communities or end abuses of religious freedom.

Saudi King Abdullah, who initiated this week’s special session, is quietly enlisting the leaders’ support for a global law to punish blasphemy – a campaign championed by the 56-member Organization of Islamic Conference that puts the rights of religions ahead of individual liberties.

If the campaign succeeds, states that presume to speak in the name of religion will be able to crush religious freedom not only in their own country, but abroad.

The UN session is designed to endorse a meeting of religious leaders in Spain last summer that was the brainchild of King Abdullah and organized by the Muslim World League. That meeting resulted in a final statement counseling promotion of “respect for religions, their places of worship, and their symbols … therefore preventing the derision of what people consider sacred.”

The lofty-sounding principle is, in fact, a cleverly coded way of granting religious leaders the right to criminalize speech and activities that they deem to insult religion. Instead of promoting harmony, however, this effort will exacerbate divisions and intensify religious repression.

Such prohibitions have already been used in some countries to restrict discussion of individuals’ freedom vis-à-vis the state, to prevent criticism of political figures or parties, to curb dissent from prevailing views and beliefs, and even to incite and to justify violence.

They undermine the standards codified in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the keystone of the United Nations, by granting greater rights to religions than to individuals, including those who choose to hold no faith – or who would seek to convert.

Another stark irony hangs over the UN special session this week. Saudi Arabia is one of the world’s worst abusers of religious freedom, a fact recognized by the Bush administration when it named it a “country of particular concern” under the International Religious Freedom Act in 2004. The king couldn’t hold such a conference at home, where conservative clerics no doubt would purge the guest list of Jews from Israel, Baha’is, and Ahmadis. 

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