Defamation of Religion

A 12-year campaign by Islamic countries to have religion protected from “defamation” via a series of United Nations resolutions was brought to a halt in March when Western countries and like-minded states backed a new approach that switches the focus from protecting beliefs to protecting believers.

Since 1998, the 57-nation Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) (now Cooperation) had won approval in the UN Human Rights Council and at the United Nations General Assembly for a series of resolutions to “combat defamation of religion and incitement to religious hatred in general and against Islam and Muslims in particular”.

But critics said the concept ran against international law and free speech, and left the way open for draconian blasphemy laws like those in Pakistan.

They argued that it also allowed states where one religion predominates to keep religious minorities under tight control or even leave them open to forced conversion or oppression.

A poll of 18487 respondents in 20 nations conducted by in 2009 showed that majorities in 13 of the 20 nations supported the right to criticise a religion. See here for full report.

The margins of error range from +/-3 to 4 percentage points. The surveys were conducted across the different nations between April 25 and July 9, 2009.

A summary of the results is given below.

Currently there is a controversy about criticizing religions. Which position is closer to yours:

On average, across all countries polled, 57% of respondents agree that “people should be allowed to publicly criticize a religion because people should have freedom of speech.”

However, an average of 34% of respondents agree that governments “should have the right to fine or imprison people who publicly criticize a religion because such criticism could defame the religion.”

Of the seven nations where most people agree with that criticism of religion should be prohibited five have overwhelmingly Muslim populations — Egypt (71%), Pakistan (62%), Iraq (57%), Indonesia (49%), and the Palestinian territories (51%). Another two — India (59%) and Nigeria (54%)– have historically been plagued by sectarian violence.

Support for the right to criticize religion is strongest in the United States, with 89%, compared to just 9% support for government restrictions.

Chile is next with 82% support, followed by Mexico (81%), Britain (81%), Germany (76%), Poland (68%), Azerbaijan (67%), France (66%), Russia (61%), South Korea (59%), Turkey (54%), Kenya (54%), and Ukraine (53%).

In addition, 68% of Taiwanese and 81% in Hong Kong agree the ability to criticize religion should be a right.

The two non-Muslim countries where majorities responded by saying governments should be able to fine or imprison people for criticizing religions are India and Nigeria.

Both were founded in the 20th century with borders that were drawn by former colonial powers in a way that encompassed a variety of religions, including a large Muslim minority. And both have since experienced periodic spates of sectarian violence that have frequently involved Muslims.

This suggests that their support of government restrictions may stem not from a popular push to defend Islam — Muslims make up roughly half of Nigeria’s population but just 13% of India’s — but from a broadly shared desire to maintain order by curbing criticism of religions.

In Nigeria, that is borne out by the fact that Muslims and Christians respond almost identically to the poll question. Fifty-four percent of Christians and 53% of Muslims favor government restrictions, while 45% of Muslims and 43% of Christians say criticism of religion should be allowed.