Defamation of Islam and denial of human rights abuses

Published in Turkish Daily News, 14 July 2008

Something extremely important has been happening at the highest levels of international diplomacy and human rights mechanisms without much public attention. A series of resolutions, named “combating defamation of religions,” have been passed at the U.N. General Assembly and the U.N. Human Rights Council for the last couple of years following intense lobbying by the Organization of Islamic Conference, or OIC. The resolution was first drafted as a stand against “defamation of Islam” and for obvious political reasons it has been adopted as “combating defamation of religions.” However, the text still singles out Islam and seeks to protect Islam from any accusations of or association with human rights abuses.

Ways nations deny human rights abuses:

At its face value, the resolution asks for mutual understanding, respect and condemnation of racism and marginalization. Leaving aside the important questions of whether respect can be legislated or dictated, whether criticism of a religion counts as a human rights abuse or breach of international law, or whether in fact Islam is in such a vulnerable place that it needs legal shields more than other religions, a further probe may prove that what the OIC is trying to do is not to protect Islam, but its own member states.

Denial of human rights abuses always goes hand in hand with committing them. As Stan Cohen points out, these denials can be literal - i.e. nothing like that happened; interpretive - i.e. something has happened but it isn't what you say it is; implicatory – i.e. it happened but we are not the ones to be blamed. We hear these kinds of arguments all the time. “Our country does not torture, this is a false accusation.” “It is true that the suspects were arrested, but they were not tortured, only questioned.” “We are at war with terrorists, though measures have to be taken, who are you to accuse us?” In the age of global media and nongovernmental organizations, literal denial is almost impossible as sooner or later the truth emerges.

This has made the jobs of governments quite difficult and led them to develop extremely sophisticated arguments that spin and reinterpret the emerged truth. Yet, it seems that the Middle Eastern and Asian governments still favor either literal denial, even though there is solid evidence, or implicatory denial through which they launch an aggressive attack on those who challenge their human rights track record.

It is interesting that these governments have always picked on contemporary Western liberal languages while shamelessly covering the mistreatment of their own citizens. When the liberal analysis focused on ethics of interventionism, these governments accused the U.N., United States and European countries of “interventionism” and disrespecting their sovereignty. When Orientalism was named as a fantasy, any Western government, NGOs, writer or journalist who criticized certain nations, they were accused of essentialism and caricaturing the Middle East as “barbarian.” When Western intelligentsia's sensitivity toward reductionism and racism along with political correctness and fear of further clashes led to at times uncritical endorsement of the language of “Islamophobia,” these governments were quick to use this as a way of covering up their traces.

A religion cannot commit human rights abuses:

So now, the final act of using Western sensitivities for denial of human rights abuses is the seeming call for “respect” and the fight against “the defamation of Islam.” With this argument any criticism of governments and their immoral police and intelligence officers is portrayed, manipulated and represented as an attack on Islam. Given the political climate we live in, none of us would ever want to be accused of such a dangerous “crime.” However, just as literal or interpretive denial might seem smart but very feeble at the first serious counter argument, the arguments of “defamation of Islam” are equally feeble.

A religion cannot commit human rights abuses, since a religion is an abstraction and not a living entity. Human rights abuses are committed by individuals and only individuals are legally culpable. Therefore, if one condemns human rights abuses committed by the Saudi police, what is criticized is not Islam, but particular individuals who live in a certain location and time. In order to get rid of the “headache” created by human rights arguments, Saudi Arabia might declare that Islam is being attacked and defamed. In this way, Islam is instrumentalized to shield against the truth of moral failure of individuals.

The freedom of expression definitely has its limits. We have seen how marginalizing and making reports by the media scapegoats have played a key role in dehumanizing the mass murders of thousands of people in Rwanda and Kosovo. We have to continually fight against racism and its dissemination for the greatest and most absolute ethical imperative: Protecting human life. However, when arguments for limiting freedom of expression contradict the same ethical imperative, we should be speaking and criticizing as loud as we can. If a country or a people abuses its minorities and put their lives at risk, we should (and must) boldly challenge them, even though they might easily argue that our criticism is portrayed as “insulting,” “disrespecting” or “defaming” them. Failure to do so is to willingly sacrifice the living human being at the altar of abstractions, imagined communities and created ideologies.

Rights for all:

Those who read my writings would know; I defend the rights of Muslim women to wear what they wish as much as I defend the rights of non-Muslim women to wear what they wish. I speak about Guantanamo Bay and human rights abuses suffered by Muslims under the “war on terror” as loudly as I can for the same reason I will continue to speak as loudly as I can when Muslim nations commit horrible atrocities. Just as I refuse to accept guilt when my Western friends accuse me of “defending terrorists,” I will forever reject any accusations that I am defaming Islam. I am only, and proudly, defaming a particular political regime and fighting to protect the human.