When Jews argue with the pope over the reinstitution of the Good Friday prayer, or with Mormons over the “baptism” of Holocaust victims, they ask for a retraction – or at least a reconsideration. While such interreligious interchanges are sometimes heated and always sensitive, they are also legal. At least they have been, until now.
On Monday the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution submitted by the Organization of the Islamic Conference deeming “defamation of religion” a violation of international law – clearly an effort to curb free speech. This might seem like a tempting prospect in the face of anti-Semitic statements like Louis Farrakhan’s calling Judaism a “gutter religion.” But we should resist that temptation .
According to Mark Stern, acting co-executive director of the American Jewish Congress and a lawyer specializing in the First Amendment, the resolution represents “many years of quiet work” by the OIC (see page 16). And while it has the potential to override the hard-won right to freedom of speech in the United States, the implications of this measure will be felt most strongly in Muslim nations, according to Hillel Neuer, executive director of UN Watch.
“Muslim moderates, bloggers, women seeking basic freedoms – all of these will be the first to suffer from the worsening climate of state repression in the name of state-supported Islamic orthodoxy,” he says. But also clearly targeted are those in the Western world who would criticize radical Islam and speak out against those who commit violence in its name.
Nolo.com, a resource for legal information, defines “defamation” as “a false statement that injures someone’s reputation and exposes him to public contempt, hatred, ridicule, or condemnation.” The key element here is the word “false.”
Just as many Jewish organizations in the United States have long argued that questions concerning which religions are “right” and which are “wrong” as regards particular social issues (think abortion) ought not be determined by political bodies, so too must we argue that no political tribunal should judge what is “true” and what is “false” about any particular religion.
According to Joy Kurland, director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey, our local Jewish community is in dialogue with seven other religious groups. “Dialogue” sometimes means telling members of another group that what they are doing is hurtful, or even dangerous. We must still do that.