Islamic leaders, in the recently concluded OIC summit in Dakar (13-14 March), adopted "A Ten-Year Program of Action" to meet Challenges facing the Muslim Ummah. The Action plan, among other goals, calls on the United Nations to combat Islamophobia, and to enact laws to counter defamation, denigration and stereotyping of Islam, including penalties as deterrent.
And the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) was waiting on its toes to follow the OIC agenda. On 29 March, UNHRC adopted a resolution, proposed by Islamic countries, condemning defamation of religion and urging nation states to ban it, on a 21-10 vote, despite opposition from Europe and Canada.Western countries voted against the resolution because of its potential usage to limit freedom of expression.
The Saudi delegation, spearheading the resolution, countered the European position by charging that "it is regrettable that there are false translations and interpretations of the freedom of expression."
The problem with Saudi position is that their society has no concept of free of expression. It existed in pre-Islamic Arabia and Prophet Muhammad used it to its limit, whereby he could openly preach that the existing pagan religion of Mecca was false and canceled by Allah, Judaism and Christianity was perverted, corrupted or misunderstood.
He preached these messages without ever suffering any violence or physical harm, whatsoever. While exploiting the existing tolerance and freedom of expression to its extreme, the Prophet also banned any freedom of expression that questioned his actions and doctrines. He ordered the poets, critics and apostates to be killed as recorded in Quranic passages and in his original early biographies written by pious Muslim historians.
The Saudi society has never seen freedom of expression ever since. Even today, carrying the Bible or any other religious scripture is banned, one faces imprisonment for preaching non-Muslim religions and definite death for converting Muslims to other religions.
The Saudis are building mosques all over the West and spreading virulent Islamist extremism, but a Catholic delegation, seeking to negotiate building of a church in Saudi, recently returned empty handed from the holy kingdom.
This is the concept of Saudi freedom of expression, of religion and of human rights. Probably, the Christian West should apply this correct interpretation of freedom of expression and religious rights in their country to make the Saudis happy.
Socrates was put to death in 399 BCE for persisting on his right to speak his mind. In 1644 CE, John Milton, in his fight for freedom of expression long dead in Europe, urged the British parliament: "Give me the liberty to know, to utter, to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties." He emphasized that the duty of the government was to serve the people, and central to this was freedom of expression.
The great legal mind of the 18th century, Sir William Blackstone, while arguing (1769-69) in favor of unfettered freedom of expression also warned of the downside of it that if one expresses or publishes what is improper, mischievous, or illegal—"he must take the consequences of his own temerity."
These ideas of freedom of expression were codified in a government charter, namely the French Constitution, for the first time in 1789. It was adopted by the US constitution two years later and all Western liberal democracies gradually followed suit.
The UNHRC charter adopted the Freedom of expression in article 19 of its Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, which reads: "Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers."
The UN also adopted another clause on freedom of religion in Article 18, which reads: "Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance."
While the Saudis lecture the world about 'what is correct and what is not' about freedom of expression, one is left to wonder how the Saudi system of freedom of expression conforms to those of the UNHRC charter.
Of course, one must take responsibility for what he/she expresses. Any complaint against someone's views must be brought to the court of law to determine whether the person’s expressed views are correct or not and where those ideas came from. If incorrect, then whether they are motivated by mischievous goals or not!
Imposing a wholesale ban on any kind of expression, as intended in the latest UNHRC resolution, is exactly the opposite of what freedom of expression stands for. The UNHRC, in its own charter, is committed to upholding the freedom of expression, not to undermining it as it has done by adopting the latest resolution.