Remember the Danish "Muhammad cartoons" that set off riots by offended Muslims more than three years ago? The debate pitted freedom of press and speech against notions of freedom from insult of one's religion. It rages still - but now in a forum with international legal implications.
For years, Islamic nations have succeeded in passing "blasphemy" resolutions at the United Nations (in the General Assembly and in its human rights body). The measures call on states to limit religiously offensive language or speech. No one wants their beliefs ridiculed, but the freedom to disagree over faith is what allows for the free practice of religion. The resolutions are misguided, but also only symbolic, because they're nonbinding.
Symbolism no longer satisfies the sponsor of these resolutions - the Organization of the Islamic Council. Under the leadership of Pakistan, the 57-nation OIC wants to give the religious antidefamation idea legal teeth by making it part of an international convention, or legally binding treaty. Members of the UN Human Rights Council are passionately debating that idea in Geneva this week.
The United States under Barack Obama recently joined the UNHRC, maligned for years as the mouthpiece for countries that are themselves flagrant human rights abusers. A "new" council formed in 2006. President Obama's hope is that as an engaged member, the US can further reform - and its own interests. This case will test his theory.
Consider the wording put forth by Pakistan, written on behalf of the OIC. It proposes "legal prohibition of publication of material that negatively stereotypes, insults or uses offensive language" on matters regarded by religious followers as "sacred or inherent to their dignity as human beings."
This gives broad latitude to governments to decide what's offensive. Countries such as Pakistan already have national blasphemy laws, but a global treaty would give them international cover to suppress minority religious groups with the excuse that these groups offend mainstream beliefs.
And what about unpopular, even "insulting" dissenters within a majority religion - such as women who seek to interpret Islamic sharia law so that they may gain more rights?
Besides, international treaties are meant to protect the rights of people, not ideas. …