Monday, April 20, 2009

The Best Response to Defamation

You may have heard about an effort by Islamic nations to have the United Nations characterize "religious-defamation" as a human rights violation equivalent to racism and related forms of bigotry. If not here's a little info from Reuters:

GENEVA (Reuters) - A United Nations forum on Thursday (March 26th) passed a resolution condemning "defamation of religion" as a human rights violation, despite wide concerns that it could be used to justify curbs on free speech in Muslim countries.

The U.N. Human Rights Council adopted the non-binding text, proposed by Pakistan on behalf of Islamic states, with a vote of 23 states in favor and 11 against, with 13 abstentions.

Western governments and a broad alliance of activist groups have voiced dismay about the religious defamation text, which adds to recent efforts to broaden the concept of human rights to protect communities of believers rather than individuals.

Pakistan, speaking for the 56-nation Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), said a "delicate balance" had to be struck between freedom of expression and respect for religions.

The resolution said Muslim minorities had faced intolerance, discrimination and acts of violence since the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, including laws and administrative procedures that stigmatize religious followers.

"Defamation of religious is a serious affront to human dignity leading to a restriction on the freedom of their adherents and incitement to religious violence," the adopted text read, adding that "Islam is frequently and wrongly associated with human rights violations and terrorism."

It called on states to ensure that religious places, sites, shrines and symbols are protected, to reinforce laws "to deny impunity" for those exhibiting intolerance of ethnic and religious minorities, and "to take all possible measures to promote tolerance and respect for all religions and beliefs." (Read the whole thing here)

As a fellow believer in the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) as God's Messenger and the Quran as God's Word, I too have been saddened at what I've heard from those who view Muslims with suspicion and fear. The Baha'i Faith is emphatic about the power of speech for both good and evil:

"Bahá'u'lláh warns us that "the tongue is a smouldering fire, and excess of speech a deadly poison". "Material fire consumeth the body," He says in elaborating the point, "whereas the fire of the tongue devoureth both heart and soul. The force of the former lasteth but for a time, whilst the effects of the latter endureth a century." In tracing the framework of free speech, He again advises "moderation". "Human utterance is an essence which aspireth to exert its influence and needeth moderation", He states, adding, "As to its influence, this is conditional upon refinement which in turn is dependent upon hearts which are detached and pure. As to its moderation, this hath to be combined with tact and wisdom as prescribed in the Holy Scriptures and Tablets." Also relevant to what is said, and how, is when it is said. For speech, as for so many other things, there is a season. Bahá'u'lláh reinforces this understanding by drawing attention to the maxim that "Not everything that a man knoweth can be disclosed, nor can everything that he can disclose be regarded as timely, nor can every timely utterance be considered as suited to the capacity of those who hear it." Speech is a powerful phenomenon. Its freedom is both to be extolled and feared. It calls for an acute exercise of judgement, since both the limitation of speech and the excess of it can lead to dire consequences.
(The Universal House of Justice, 1988 Dec 29, Individual Rights and Freedoms, p. 7)

Those who are rightfully critical of wrongs done in the name of Islam (including many Muslims themselves) should voice their concerns in a tone and spirit that encourage civility, understanding, and good-will. However, the most powerful response to defamation is the power of example. As Ghandi (a Hindu), has said we must become the change we want to see in the world. If the Islamic world desires that its values and heritage be respected, let it exemplify such virtues in its own lands. When the great Buddhist statues of Afghanistan are rebuilt, when Shia and Sunni co-exist peacefully regardless of who is the majority, when the evangelical preaches the gospel in the middle of Mecca, and yes when Baha'is build a House of Worship right in the heart of Tehran, that will go a long way towards muting the voices of anti-Islamic bigotry. I want the same thing that my Muslim brothers and sister want. Vigorous advocacy of religious freedom throughout the Islamic world without exception is the best way to get it. Just a thought.