United Nations To Rubber Stamp Resolution

For the fourth year in a row, the United Nations will rubber stamp a resolution pushed by Islamic countries that combats what they consider defamation of religion. Critics, including the U.S., say the resolution clamps down on free speech and religious expression.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is Morning Edition from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne. In Western culture even the most sacred beliefs are fair game for satire. Monty Python proved that 30 years ago with the movie "The Life of Brian."

(Soundbite of movie "The Life of Brian")

Mr. TERRY JONES: (As Mandy Cohen) Now, you listen here. He's not the messiah. He's a very naughty boy. Now go away.

MONTAGNE: And the people at "South Park" on television's Comedy Central do it practically every week.

(Soundbite of TV show "South Park")

Mr. MATT STONE: (As Jesus) Yeah, believe in me and ye shall find peace.

Mr. TREY PARKER: (As Mr. Garrison) Yeah, yeah, yeah, we've heard that crap for about 2,000 years now. We want to hear something new. It's the year 2000, for Christ's sake.

Unidentified Actors: Yeah.

MONTAGNE: Here it's called free speech. In some other countries, it's blasphemy and it's illegal. For several years, Islamic countries have sponsored a U.N. resolution condemning what they call defamation of religion. That resolution is up for a vote again this week. NPR's Jamie Tarabay reports.

JAMIE TARABAY: Those guys from "South Park" could wind up in jail in some countries, some countries where it's more about what the government says offends a religion rather than defaming a person. That issue of defamation is a tricky one. Can you actually defame an idea? And what role does the truth play?

Ms. ANGELA WU (International Law Director, Becket Fund): If you just think about what all the world's religions say, each one of them claims to have some sort of a truth.

TARABAY: Angela Wu works for the Becket Fund, a nonprofit law firm that monitors religious freedom.

Ms. WU: And each one of them is probably offensive by its very nature to people of other faiths who disagree with them.

TARABAY: We're here at the U.N. building in New York where the defamation resolution is up for review. Its main sponsors are the 57 Muslim countries that make up the OIC, the Organization for Islamic Conference. One of the main reasons they cite for continuing the resolution is what they see as criticism of Islam, like the Danish cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad published in over 50 countries in 2005. The Muslim world exploded with protests, many of them violent. The OIC blames the cartoons, saying they were defamatory.

After weeks of requests for comment, the only OIC person who agreed to talk to me about this resolution was Margaret Kafiro(ph) of Uganda. In a written response, she said, quote, "The resolution deals with the disturbing increase in racist violence and xenophobic ideas in various parts of the world." But that reason for the resolution is exactly why its opponents argue against it. Here's Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice speaking in September.

(Soundbite of speech, September 2008)

Secretary CONDOLEEZZA RICE (Department of State): Instead of protecting religious practice of promoting tolerance, this concept seeks to limit freedom of speech.

TARABAY: Human rights groups fear that having this approved year after year at the U.N. gives it more creditability. They say it helps those governments punish people who criticize the state interpretation of a religion. There are other objections. This is John Hanford, U.S. ambassador for international religious freedom.

Mr. JOHN HANFORD (Ambassador-at-Large, International Religious Freedom): What we fear is that this is an effort which ultimately is exporting anti-blasphemy laws that you find in countries like Pakistan to the international level.

TARABAY: And there's a political component here.

Mr. ALI AHMED: That's why when you criticize certain practices and/or beliefs, the politicians use it to further their own policies.

TARABAY: Ali Ahmed is a Shiite Muslim dissident from Saudi Arabia.

Mr. AHMED: If you criticize the king in Saudi Arabia, you are criticizing God, basically.

TARABAY: This year there's more opposition to the resolution. In response, Islamic countries have toned it down. Ironically, that's made it unacceptable for some of the strictest Islamic countries, like Saudi Arabia. Recently, the kingdom sponsored an inter-religious dialogue and asked the rest of the world to respect religious expression. But does that mean Saudi Arabia will do the same? I asked Prince Saud Al-Faisal, the kingdom's foreign minister.

Prince SAUD AL-FAISAL (Foreign Minister, Saudi Arabia): To say from the beginning you have to transform yourself into something which you aren't now or nothing else can be achieved is, I think, carrying the argument too far.

TARABAY: That sounded like a no, or at least not yet. Opponents of the resolution say they're encouraged at signs the Muslim countries aren't as united as they once were. Even so, it's expected to pass yet again. Jamie Tarabay, NPR News.

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