17 September 2008

NGOs speak out for freedom of expression at the Human Rights Council

This morning the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies convened an excellent session at the Human Rights Council to critique the movement at the United Nations "combating the defamation of religions," which is being led by the Organization of the Islamic Conference. In resolutions adopted since 1995, the General Assembly has called for freedom of expression to be limited out of "respect for religions and belief." The representatives of these Egyptian human rights organizations were particularly effective in pointing out that such resolutions will only embolden the suppression of dissent within Islamic states.

At noon I spoke on a panel on "Religion and Freedom of Expression at the Human Rights Council," along with Walid Phares, Naser Khader, and Tarek Fatah (sponsored by the International Humanist and Ethical Union and the Center for Inquiry). The session was attended by representatives of several governments. Walid, Naser, and Tarek, as outsiders to the UN system, could speak candor seldom heard within the halls of the Palais. They connected the scrimishes inside the HRC with a wider "war of values" being waged by Islamists against secular, liberal ideals. For my part, I asked what "respect for religions" would demand.
In the final analysis, it is not religions that deserve our respect. A religion is a collection of metaphysical ideas and moral ideals. Ideas are believed or disbelieved; ideals are pursued or rejected. Admiration, appreciation, perhaps, but respect? No. What deserves respect are persons. Surely, the feelings of persons--individuals believers--can be affected when their beliefs are attacked or ridiculed. These feelings are real and important. However, feelings of offense do not generate a right not to be offended.
Respect for persons does not require that we never hurt their feelings, but rather that we treat them as possessing dignity equal to our own, and therefore hold them to the same fundamental intellectual, ethical, and legal standards to which we hold ourselves, to see them as autonomous, self-legislating creatures. Therefore, respect for a person is not only consistent with criticism of a person's beliefs; respect for a person sometimes requires criticism of his or her beliefs. Sometimes in order to respect, we must disagree. Anything less is not respect, but indifference.
The debate over "defamation of religions" seems to be galvanizing a response. There is optimism in the air that the resolution can be stopped at the next General Assembly, perhaps by a push led by the U.S.

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