Dispatches from the Creation Wars

Defamation of Religion Laws

Three posts at Volokh (see them all on one page here) have highlighted an extraordinarily dangerous movement toward the adoption of laws, both national and international, against “defamation of religion.” Volokh points to two articles, one by a Muslim law professor named Liaquat Ali Khan and one by a Jewish professor of political science named Robert Freedman, arguing for such laws. And as the former article points out, the UN General Assembly has voted two years in a row to call on member states to adopt laws prohibiting any speech that defames a religion. This is an incredibly dangerous idea. Ali Khan writes:

The General Assembly resolutions may contain soft international law. With the passage of time and compliant state behavior, some resolutions pave the way for the formation of a multilateral treaty or customary international law. In almost all cases, these resolutions reflect the international community’s views, which cannot be dismissed as mere opinions.

No, I would not dismiss those votes as mere opinions; I’d dismiss them as insanely wrong opinions and I categorically reject it. Want to hear something even crazier? Look at the patterns of who voted for the resolution and who didn’t:

Supportive States: In 2005, 101 states voted for the Defamation Resolution. In 2006, the Resolution gained ten more states, bringing the total to 111. All Middle Eastern states except Israel, an overwhelming majority of states from Asia, Africa, and South America voted for the Resolution. Russia and China, the two permanent members of the UN Security Council also voted for the Resolution.

All middle eastern states except Israel voted for the resolution? Can that be serious? We’re going to ask the opinion of Saudi Arabia, where schools routinely teach that Jews and Christians are pigs worthy of death, whether we should pass a law forbidding the defamation of religion? We’re going to ask nations full of people who burn down synagogues over cartoons drawn halfway around the world and who believe that someone who converts from Islam to Christianity should be put to death whether religions can be criticized? We’re supposed to care what China, a nation that has all but destroyed Tibetan Buddhism and routinely locks up and tortures Christians and Muslims, thinks about our laws on religious freedom?

Have we passed through the mirror into some sort of bizarro world? The fact that a Jewish professor actually supports such legislation suggests that we have. Freedman writes of the Danish cartoon controversy::

As a result of the crisis, lives were lost, embassies were attacked in the Muslim world, the loyalty of Muslims living in Europe was put into question, and the image of Islam in the West as a violent religion was reinforced, thus increasing the possibility of the “clash of civilizations” desired by Islamic radicals such as Osama bin Laden.

Prof. Freedman, with all due respect, what the Danish cartoon controversy demonstrated, beyond a shadow of a doubt, is that this is a clash of civilizations. It’s a clash between those who believe that they have the right to kill those who criticize their religion and those who believe that we all have the right to question any idea, even those ideas other people are willing to kill over; indeed that believes that those ideas people are willing to kill over are the ideas that must be questioned and criticized the most.

This is a clash between modern conceptions of liberty and equality and a barbaric medieval philosophy that seeks the destruction of every achievement gained since the Enlightenment. If the image of Islam as a violent religion was reinforced, there is a very good reason for that: because they reacted by firebombing embassies and calling for the extermination of those who dared to insult them. And rather that telling such nuts that we will not bow to their thuggery, Freedman suggests that we bow to them:

In order to rectify the situation, and to prevent a future crisis of this type from erupting, what is needed is a “code of conduct” for the newspapers and other media in both the Western and Muslim worlds. All governments must agree that the negative depiction of religion is “out of bounds,” and penalties should be imposed on those who violate the code of conduct.

The problem, of course, is to determine the difference between legitimate criticism of someone who acts in the name of a religion, and the negative depiction of that religion.

To solve that problem, I propose the creation of an International Religious Court, composed of Christian, Muslim and Jewish clergymen with one clergyman representing each of the three religions. Anyone feeling that his or her religion was insulted could appeal to the International Religious Court for a ruling on the matter, and the court would then determine whether a penalty should be invoked. It would be the responsibility of the government on whose territory the action took place to impose the penalty.

Given the sheer insanity of this position, “no” is hardly a strong enough answer. Try hell no. Try fuck no. Try “over my dead body.” Not today, not tomorrow, not ever.


  1. #1 Skemono
    February 8, 2007

    To solve that problem, I propose the creation of an International Religious Court, composed of Christian, Muslim and Jewish clergymen with one clergyman representing each of the three religions.

    Because there are only three religions in the world. At least, only three that matter, apparently.

  2. #2 Gerard Harbison
    February 8, 2007

    What is particularly worrisome is the reach of these laws. For example, while I usually don’t gratuitously commit what they call blasphemy, I posted the bomb-Muhammed cartoon on my blog in solidarity with Jyllands Posten. Will I now be vulnerable to prosecution in a country with one of these defamation laws, if I happen to visit that country?

    The US already has court precedent forbidding us from extraditing for conduct that would be protected by the first amendment here. Significantly, one of those precedents was Gary Lauck, the neo-Nazi, a good lesson in why we need to protect the first amendment rights even of the most abhorrent people in our midst.

  3. #3 Chris' Wills
    February 8, 2007

    I’m not suprised at China voting for it, China will vote alongside the so called third world countries. Good politics for them.
    The only problem I see for China is that it will have to stop its open defamation of all religions, this won’t stop it making it impossible for new religious buildings to be erected and of course, there is the old standby “mental illness” so they can lock the more vociferous away.

    I know that in the UK the blasphemy laws were thrown out some time ago, though Bliar was proposing a similair law prior to the bombings.

    Seems that free speech is only for the select and it is getting worse world wide.

  4. #4 gateman's nametag
    February 8, 2007

    It seems like California already has such a law, can anyone enlighten me on the plight of Keith Henson?

    I’ve seen him mentioned on some blogs, so I looked him up on Wikipedia, apparently he was convicted under a California law for “interfering with a religion” by criticizing Scientology on the internet. He has also been threatened with violence, and had to seek refuge for some time in Canada, where he was accepted. He returned to the U.S. last week and was sent to jail.

    I know Wikipedia can be biased/incomplete/incorrect, but can anyone summarize the other (U.S. government) side of this case for me?

  5. #5 hmd
    February 8, 2007

    I can only imagine the field day that Scientology lawyers would have with a law like this.

    Somehow, people who push stuff like this seem to think it will only apply to their religion, or only to religions they think are reasonable. But such things could really be abused to cover up all kinds of stuff. Would it be “defamation of religion” to report on the possibility that Catholic Archbishops countenanced sexual abuse? Would reporters want to take that chance?

  6. #6 SteveF
    February 8, 2007

    In related news, the idiotic Danish cleric who toured the middle east with the Jyllands-Posten cartoons (plus forged a few himself) has died. Boo-hoo:


    Meanwhile, a French paper is being sued by Muslim fundies for printing an apparently offensive cartoon:

    “PARIS (Reuters) – A French paper accused of insulting Muslims by printing cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad surprised a court hearing on Wednesday with a letter of support from presidential candidate Nicolas Sarkozy.

    “I prefer an excess of caricatures to an absence of caricatures,” Sarkozy, the conservative interior minister who helped launch the French Muslim Council, wrote in a letter read out by a lawyer for the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo.

    The letter from the presidential race frontrunner, whose ministry is also responsible for religious affairs, drew an angry response from one of three Muslim groups suing the weekly.

    “He should remain neutral,” Abdullah Zekri of the Paris Grand Mosque told journalists outside the Paris court hearing the case on Wednesday and Thursday. A ruling will be handed down at a later date”


    He should not remain neutral; he should act to preserve French secularity. Quite rightly, that is what he is doing.

  7. #7 Raging Bee
    February 8, 2007

    Would it be “defamation of religion” to report on the possibility that Catholic Archbishops countenanced sexual abuse? Would reporters want to take that chance?

    Why don’t you ask Pope Palpadict, who kinda sorta supports such laws (but kinda sorta broke them with certain remarks about the history of Islam)?

    The biggest problem with such laws, is that if even one thin-skinned idiot says he’s offended by a statement or cartoon, then the statement or cartoon is, by definition, offensive.

    And don’t even get me started on the lack of Pagan, Heathen, atheist, Buddhist, Hindu, Taoist or Shintoist representation on that International Religious Court. (Is there anyone I missed? Probably. My bad.) Or the question of which denomination of each of those Big Three religions gets represented…

  8. #8 Solomon
    February 8, 2007

    Wait, why would the court only be composed of Christians, Jews, and Muslims? What about the Buddhists, Hindus, and native Chinese Religions?

  9. #9 dr x
    February 8, 2007

    These people have crippled minds. Sometimes I question whether we all really should be considered members of the same species.

  10. #10 Matthew Young
    February 8, 2007

    Can I apply to represent the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster?

    And is there anyone left to represent Branch Davidians (sp?), and will there be a fire extinguisher handy in case they get a bit upset and barricade themselves in a store cupboard?

    I sit here thinking Richard Dawkins really does go over the top and should tone it down a bit and then this sort of craziness rears its head. It reminds me of when he raised the point that whenever there is a public controversy of some sort they always dig out a religious leader to be interviewed – but why? What the flying fuck is so special about this particular brand of willful idiocy that it feels it has the right for its tribal, superstitious nonsense to be treated with any respect whatsoever?

    My very existence is an act of religious defamation because I hold all religions in their entirety in total and utter contempt.

    It takes a really special act of lunacy for me to think that Dawkins doesn’t go far enough, but that is what these cretins have achieved.

    And, breathe…

  11. #11 CPT_Doom
    February 8, 2007

    Not only are such laws ridiculous, why is there only one “Christian” judge on the proposed panel. Seeing as the Roman Catholic religion considers all mainline Protestants heretics, and all evangelicals/fundamentalists, including both the Southern Baptists and Mormons, psuedo-Christian cults, it seems there would be a significant pragmatic issue here. After all, I was taught by the nuns that the King James Blasphemy (they would not call it a bible), is so immoral, so revolting, that if I opened a copy and simply looked at the paper on which it was printed – not actually reading the words mind you – I would go straight to Hell. Can’t see how that ISN’T offending another religion.

    And for that matter, didn’t some fundie in Alabama once decry that more than 50% of the state was not “saved” because, although they might consider themselves Christian, they were not in a religion he thought was valid (he included all the Jews for good measure as well)? I’d love to see someone like that hauled before a “court” such as this for his statements.

  12. #12 Russell Claus
    February 8, 2007

    I don’t normally consider myself a 2nd Amendment type of person, but it is moments like these I feel safer knowing I own a firearm.

  13. #13 Matthew Young
    February 8, 2007

    This seriously is one of those laws so utterly offensive that you’d rather go to prison than ever acknowledge it.

    These people make me want to go out and stamp on little fluffy kittens in front of a class of pre-school kids.

  14. #14 Thony C.
    February 8, 2007

    All I can say is “religion sucks” and any law that tries to prevent me from saying that sucks big time!

  15. #15 Jim Lippard
    February 8, 2007

    Gateman’s Nametag: You can find Keith Henson status here.

    He left Canada in 2005 and has presumably been in the U.S. since then, until his arrest last Friday.

  16. #16 Raging Bee
    February 8, 2007

    [shameless_plug]I wrote a bit about this issue here.[/shameless_plug]

  17. #17 Corkscrew
    February 8, 2007

    I’m sorry, but a core belief of my religion is that all other religions should be mocked mercilessly.

    What, you don’t approve? Are you disrespecting my religion or something? I demand an attorney!

    (Seriously, there is no way in hell this law will last more than ten minutes without someone managing to sue every major religious publication for millions.)

  18. #18 Keanus
    February 8, 2007

    Corkscrew is right. Every religious publisher in the world would find themselves in court defending multiple cases. The only way to implement it would be to ban all religious publications, including “holy books”, and all public religious expression and that’s about as likely to happen as the moon rising in the west. No, I take that back, the moon rising in the west is much more likely to happen.

    The whol thing would be the farce to end all farces.

  19. #19 Chris' Wills
    February 8, 2007

    Well, it just struck me, I am in a country that actually has a law against defaming religions.
    They get to insult Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, etc by the simple expediant of declaring that Islam is the only true religion and all other belief sets are kafir & haram and so they are not religions but are idolatry :o).

    Now let’s see, how shall we carve up the world so that each religion has its own pure land?

    In truth, I don’t believe that any of the people backing this give a fig about religion, it is masters & want to be masters trying to increase their own power and limit dissent by us peons.

    As corkscrew pointed out, it is unworkable as the tenet of most religions is that all the others are wrong and their is a duty to save the unbeliever by proslytising.

    Failing all else, Atheists could form a church,http://www.jefallbright.net/node/2924

    Agnostics, of course, already have at least one church http://www.apatheticagnostic.com/ .

    Another thought, have they defined what a religion is? Does it require a deity or deities? If yes then Buddhism is out on a limb.

    The road to hell is paved with good intentions, the cement fixing them is from bad intentions. I suspect we have a mix of both in this stupidity.

  20. #20 Tom
    February 9, 2007

    It should be against the law NOT to defame religion, or any other arrant nonsense, once it comes to ones attention.

  21. #21 Colugo
    February 9, 2007

    “All governments must agree that the negative depiction of religion is “out of bounds,” and penalties should be imposed on those who violate the code of conduct.”

    And don’t desecrate the flags of Hezbollah and Hamas, because those contain the word “Allah” in Arabic script.


  22. #22 James
    February 9, 2007

    “thus increasing the possibility of the “clash of civilizations” desired by Islamic radicals such as Osama bin Laden.”

    Can’t have a clash of civiliastions when only one of the parties counts as a civilisation.

    As far as my reaction to this new attempt at thoughtcrime – Death First (their’s for preference).

  23. #23 Matthew Young
    February 9, 2007

    Is this not veering idiotically close to making it illegal to disagree with one’s taste in music and attitude to Woody Allen’s (utterly abysmal) films?

    As a committed music enthusiast I am not saying that being able to forbid people from enjoying the likes of Korn or Limp God-forsaken Bizkit or whatever isn’t really quite appealing, but only on the assumption that I myself am the Global Grand Arbiter of Ultimate Artistic Merit.

    Seriously, religion is no more than a set of opinions on something unprovable (I mean the existence of god, not the clearly provable things like the age of the plant etc..), so what’s the difference?

    Is not refusing to treat people’s religious beliefs with the slightest respect not an entirely legitimate religious belief?

  24. #24 raj
    February 10, 2007

    What you may misapprehend is that “defamation of religion” laws are the flip side of “defamation of corporation/business/und_so_weiter” laws. In other words, those who pursue “defamation of religion” laws are doing nothing more than asserting what we have known all along: establishments of religion are nothing more than businesses, cloaked in other garb.

  25. #25 James
    February 10, 2007

    I disagree raj.

    Even if churches were formally recognised as businesses they could not be defamed as only a legal person (such as a corporation) can be defamed. Religions are amorphous groups and thus cannot be defamed.

    The other thing is that most of the big evangelical churches seem to be more interested in political influence than commercial gain (which seems more to be a means to an end). I would classify the religions calling for this as political entities rather than commerical ones. Besides which I don’t think your comparison is fair to businesses. Most of the time you can be confident a business’s product actually exists ;).

  26. #26 raj
    February 10, 2007

    James | February 10, 2007 05:39 AM

    It would take more time than I am willing to devote here to explain the issue of “commercial defamation” (do a google search, it also includes product and service defamation) which is completely on point, but regarding

    The other thing is that most of the big evangelical churches seem to be more interested in political influence than commercial gain…

    No. The big evangelical churches are interested in both political influence and monetary gain. So, quite frankly, are the big “business” corporations. That last was the whole point of Eisenhower’s warning regarding the military-industrial-congressional complex We see it not only in there, but also in the prison-industrial-government complex. Also in the government-anti-(some)drug complex. There are a myriad of complexes by which business operations work with government to frighten the people to allow both business and government operatives to take in money to enrich them both. That’s true of both so-called “for profit” business organizations–so-called corporations– and also so-called “not for profit business organizations–such as “establishments of religion.”

    Besides which I don’t think your comparison is fair to businesses. Most of the time you can be confident a business’s product actually exists ;).

    Close, but not really. A few years ago, the singer and entertainer Jerry Lee Lewis was quoted as saying that he and his relative, the religionist Jimmy Swaggart were in the same business. Let’s understand something. The practitioners from the religionists are in the entertainment industry. You don’t get a “product” from attending their services, you get a service. The service exists–or it existed. The service from watching a Jerry Lee Lewis performance also existed, as did the service from watching Jimmy Swaggart. The service was the same–it was an entertainment service. No product was involved.

  27. #27 George Arndt
    February 13, 2007

    This is the result a unholy alliance of the Politically Correct, Jiahdists and the Religious Right. But, these three groups are natural allies, aren’t they?

    Call it the axis of small-mindedness.

  28. #28 defenestrated
    February 27, 2007

    Interesting that it hasn’t even occurred to the lawmakers that plenty of religions are very clear about the horrible fate they think awaits those who believe in other (“the wrong”) religions. A religious defamation law would, in theory, outlaw religion.

    Well, that wouldn’t be so bad.

  29. #29 erere
    March 6, 2007

    Ceding authority on issues of freedom of expression to a religious panel flies in the face of rationality. If religion is the truth it claims to be, why should it need to resort to law to stifle dissent? Let the ‘facts’ speak for themselves.

    Law should protect people, not ideologies.

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