Anti-blasphemy tool a diplomatic blunder

Thursday, October 11, 2012

The following is my op-ed piece in today’s Jakarta Post.



At the 67th session of the United Nations General Assembly, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) called on world leaders to “enact an international instrument to effectively prevent incitement to hostility or violence based on religions or beliefs”. These words are a verbatim citation of SBY’s speech.

Thus, SBY – in his official United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) speech — did not state that he demanded the international community enforce an international blasphemy law. The term “blasphemy” is found nowhere in his speech. What he officially pushed for is the enactment of an international instrument that could prevent incitement to hostility or violence.

This is where the move constitutes a blunder. First, there is a big difference between a blasphemy law and a law that punishes incitement of hostility. Second, laws which restrict incitement and hate speech are actually part of international law and have been practiced in by international courts. Third, the Innocence of Muslims movie, which SBY also referred to in his speech, may not necessarily qualify as an “incitement to hostility or violence”.

Let us now discuss the first blunder. The media have quoted statements from ministers and other government officials who hinted at Indonesia’s quest for an international blasphemy law, which contradicts SBY’s remarks at the UNGA forum. So what exactly is Indonesia’s diplomatic position concerning blasphemy? Does it seek to restrict free speech which incites hostility or violence or does it aim to enact a blasphemy law?

A blasphemy law protects religion, although in practice this usually translates into the “dominant” religion and its symbols. Thus, irrespective of whether something is intended to provoke violence or not, to the extent that it is considered denigrating of religion and religious symbols it can be restricted and punished.

Such an international blasphemy law would be absurd and inconceivable. Every founder of a new religion has been accused of blasphemy by the society they served. Thus blasphemy is required for a religion to exist. The Indonesian Shiite cleric Tajul Muluk, for example, has been convicted of blasphemy and jailed for it.

It would thus be unthinkable for diplomats from predominantly Shiite Iran to sit together with their Indonesian counterparts and agree on an international blasphemy provision as it would mean that they approve of persecution of Shia followers.

The second blunder is that SBY’s call for a restriction of free speech that incites violence is already part of the existing international law. The Civil and Political Covenant provides clauses that restrict freedom of expression on the grounds of public health, public order and morality. Now, why would SBY say that we need such a law when we already have one?

Third, SBY relating the international uproar surrounding Innocence of Muslims to the requirement for “an international instrument” to effectively prevent incitement to hostility or violence based on religion shows a level of disconnect. The movie does not directly incite hostility or provoke violence. Rather, hostility and violence are an indirect result of the movie.

There is a clear line separating these concepts. In order for an act of expression to incite violence, it must provoke people to commit violence. In the famous case of Radio-Télévision Libre des Milles Collines (RTLM) in Rwanda, it is clear that the radio incited Hutus to kill the Tutsis. Thus, the RTLM was held responsible for its role in the genocide. The Tutsis were therefore the direct victims of RTLM hate speech.
The RTLM case is different from the Innocence of Muslims movie. The latter does not contain any incitement for people to physically hurt Muslims and indeed no Muslims have been killed or hurt as a result of the movie’s provocation. What happened is rather the contrary. Some people — who happen to be Muslims — got angry and then killed others or got themselves killed in the process.

Undoubtedly, the movie is indeed disparaging and could lead to wrong perceptions about Islam and Muslims. However, to argue that such incorrect perceptions cause physical violence to Muslims would be too far-fetched. Because of this, SBY’s argument linking the recent uproar caused by the movie to his proposal for an international instrument to prevent incitement to hostility is unsound. Recently reports have abounded that Indonesia will lead the formulation of a roadmap towards a so-called international anti-blasphemy protocol. Whosoever gets involved in the process of drafting such roadmap will have to deal with these blunders.

Perhaps Indonesia is trying to play its card as the world’s largest predominantly Muslim nation to gain sympathy from the Organization of Islamic Conference countries. Or perhaps, this is a maneuver to send a signal to the UN Human Rights Council that Indonesia’s bad marks on the freedom of religion have some “roots” in the international arena.

Nevertheless, this whole anti-blasphemy protocol, instruments and road map is a waste of Indonesia’s diplomatic resources. This manuevering does not present a good image to the world of Indonesia as a moderate Muslim nation that succeeds in reconciling democracy and human rights with Islam. It also does not send a good signal to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) countries because there are inconsistencies in Indonesia’s diplomatic stance. It appears to me that Indonesia doesn’t really know what it wants.