Just back from a conference in Jakarta for journalists who write about religion. You might think we’d be a shy, aetiolated species living at remote altitude, unequal to the bawdy climate of the newsroom.
So it was a surprise to meet Betsy Hiel, who’s won five national awards for journalism.
The Foreign Correspondent for the Pittsburgh Tribune, based in Cairo, blue-eyed blond Betsy regularly embeds with the US Army in grim theatres where Islam is at war either with itself or with her native country.
She it was who exposed the terror connections of an extreme mosque in Pittsburgh simply because she could read the Arabic on their websites, which got one unpleasant person put behind bars.
Then there was Chan Kok Leong who lives and writes as a political analyst in a country that does not even fully validate his existence. To be legally Malay is to be Muslim; to apostasize strips you not only of your citizenship but of your race.
Being ‘Malay’ entitles you to certain benefits such as discounts on house purchase, and privileged access to business opportunities. Chan happens to be a Chinese Christian, which makes for an uncomfortable existence in the country that for years had the chairmanship of the world’s biggest Muslim organization, the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC).
And there was Yvonne Formosa from Cameroon, a dissident broadcaster and writer, now living on a different continent from her TV anchorman husband who criticised the government and was forced to flee abroad. Yvonne also had to slip away with her kids – just in time to avoid a visit from the secret police.
The woman who took over her apartment was raped there soon after – a parting shot she believes was meant for her.
What did we all have in common? One issue: challenging the abuse of power. It’s what journalists are for. But the OIC has a different expression for it: defamation of religion.
These ‘religion journalists’ are already pitting their very existence against what is an insidious and deadly new Inquisition – when the rest are covering the Beckhams' staffing problems, or whether pilates really works.
If the OIC succeeds in pushing through its anti-defamation project at the UN, it would close down Betsy, Chan and the rest.
Almost nothing’s been written about this in the UK. Try googling it and see what you come up with in UK. Almost zilch.
Yet, what the state tried to do to Yvonne in Cameroon, the OIC is trying to do both to the media and to human rights in general.
Once it becomes illegal in international law to speculate on the facts underpinning or surrounding religions, then our civilization will be at an end.
But this is quite literally what’s at stake when the Human Rights Council meets again in September in Geneva.
Worse than that is the prospect, familiar to dissidents in places like Bangladesh, Malaysia, Indonesia and even the Maldives, none of them at the extreme end of the spectrum, of prosecutions for anything that is deemed to ‘upset, insult or confuse’ Muslims.
A forthcoming book to be published in 2011 under the title Silenced details a huge number of such cases.
Cases such as that of Salauddin Shoaib Choudhury, editor of the Dhaka-based The Weekly Blitz who wrote an article advocating peaceful relations between Bangladesh and Israel – a country Bangladesh does not recognize.
Accused of ‘deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings’ he underwent six years of beatings, imprisonment, torture and attacks on his office.
In February last year, a gang broke into his newspaper’s headquarters, attacking the staff until they found him, brought him out to the street and beat him in broad daylight, claiming the Israeli Mossad employed him. ‘There is no indication that authorities intervened at all in the situation.’
Article 19 are worried about such precedents, since in Pakistan from where the UN initiative emerged following the Danish cartoons furore, you can be convicted on the say-so of ‘one good Muslim’ for blasphemy under the nation’s Penal Code – and few so accused have survived with their lives.
Article 19 say: ‘The concept of “defamation of religions” has been abusively relied upon to stifle religious dissent and criticism of religious adherents and non-believers in a number of countries around the world’. They, along with the International Humanist and Ethical Union are leading the opposition.
Truth has always been a function of the law. Truth is what the state will allow. Which is why faith is so often confused with power, or abused by it.
But you cannot protect or privilege religious ideas. Religions must be left to commend themselves – or not - through the actions of their adherents. All you can do is protect individuals from ideological abuse, usually by the state.
What is at stake is nothing less than the right to think. And it’s going global.