Regular readers of Irregular Times know that I am no great fan of Barack Obama. They also know that I have written to criticize Barack Obama’s embrace of intolerant religious leaders, and his broken promise to reform the White House Office of Faith-Based Initiatives. Barack Obama is not a supporter of the separation of church and state.
However, I’m not one of those people who automatically hates everything that Barack Obama does. The fact that Obama has repeatedly betrayed the trust of his liberal supporters and embraced corporate domination and nasty right wing politics does not logically lead to the conclusion that everything President Obama does is right wing or pro-corporate. It’s important to look at the details of Obama’s actions, and not allow ourselves to get swept up in an absolutist narrative about Obama – whether that narrative declares that Obama is the wonderful embodiment of everything that we have ever hoped for, or a wicked swindler who is just as nasty as Newt Gingrich.
I admit that when I was forwarded to an article by lawyer Jonathan Turley declaring that the Obama Administration is promoting a United Nations resolution (U.N. Human Rights resolution 16/18) that encourages the criminalization of blasphemy and police crackdowns against people who criticize religion, I was inclined to believe the story. Obama hasn’t earned my trust. I didn’t want to just repeat the story, however. So, I read Turley’s article, and I read the resolution that it condemns.
What I discovered is that Jonathan Turley’s accusations against the Obama White House are dishonest and inaccurate.
My suspicions were first raised by the tone of Turley’s article. Its rhetoric is oddly evasive and vague. Turley seems to suggest that he has some kind of inside knowledge about how the leaders of many nations intend to use the resolution, contending that the meaning of the resolution is somehow distinct from what the resolution actually says.
Turley isn’t confident enough in his own arguments to share what the resolution actually says, though. To support the contention that resolution 16/18 calls for the criminalization of the criticism of religion, Turley quotes the opening title of the resolution as “criminalizing ‘intolerance, negative stereotyping and stigmatization of … religion and belief.’”
Criminalizing intolerance of religion? Criminalizing the stereotyping of religion? Criminalizing the stigmatization of religion and belief? Why, that sounds terrible!
Pay attention to detail, however, and you’ll see that Turley’s quotation doesn’t begin with a capital letter, and has a “…” in the middle. Those are clues that Turley’s quotation of resolution 16/18 is not complete.
Here’s what the quoted section, the introductory title of the resolution, actually is: “Combating intolerance, negative stereotyping and stigmatization of, and discrimination, incitement to violence and violence against, persons based on religion or belief”.
I’ll admit that this is a very poorly written title. It practically invites misunderstanding with its awkward construction. If we take the time to parse it, though, it becomes clear that what Turley says it says, and what it actually says, are two different things.
The title isn’t directed to protection of religion. It’s directed to the protection of persons. The phrase “based on religion or belief” is a modifier of the word “persons”.
Thus, the short phrase “persons based on” carries an essential part of the title: Its very object. When Jonathan Turley chose to omit this phrase, replacing it with “…”, he was making an edit that radically changed the meaning of the text.
A resolution that condemns intolerance of religion would be defending religion from criticism. That’s not what resolution 16/18 does. Instead, it condemns intolerance of persons based on religion or belief. The resolution condemns intolerance of persons, not intolerance of religious ideas. Those are two very different things.
The resolution doesn’t condemn discrimination against religion. It condemns discrimination against persons based on religion.
The resolution doesn’t condemn the negative stereotyping and stigmatization of religion. It condemns the negative stereotyping and stigmatization of persons based on religion.
The title of the resolution also condemns “incitement to violence and violence” based on religion. Jonathan Turley seems to have perceived that this condemnation might make the resolution sound noble, however, and he chose to edit that part out.
Turley claims that resolution 16/18 “‘condemns’ statements that advocate ‘hostility’ toward religion.” That’s not what the actual text of the resolution states, however. The following are the passages from the resolution that include the word “hostility”:
- The resolution “Expresses its concern that incidents of religious intolerance, discrimination
and related violence, as well as of negative stereotyping of individuals on the basis of religion or belief, continue to rise around the world, and condemns, in this context, any advocacy of religious hatred against individuals that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence, and urges States to take effective measures, as set forth in the present resolution, consistent with their obligations under international human rights law, to address and combat such incidents;”
- The resolution “Condemns any advocacy of religious hatred that constitutes incitement to
discrimination, hostility or violence, whether it involves the use of print, audio-visual or
electronic media or any other mean”
- The resolution calls upon nations to begin “Speaking out against intolerance, including advocacy of religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence;”
What Jonathan Turley characterizes as a condemnation of hostility toward religion is actually a condemnation of “religious hatred”. The two are so different that they’re almost opposites of each other. “Religious hatred” is hatred that is religious in nature or foundation.
The resolution does not, as Jonathan Turley says, “justify crackdowns on religious critics in the name of human rights law.” Anyone who would use resolution 16/18 for such a project has clearly not read the sections where the resolution recognizes that “the open, constructive and respectful debate of ideas, as well as interfaith and intercultural dialogue at the local, national and international levels, can play a positive role in combating religious hatred, incitement and violence.” The resolution also encourages “the representation and meaningful participation of individuals, irrespective of their religion, in all sectors of society”.
There are real instances of religious discrimination. In Saudi Arabia, they just cut off a woman’s head because she was accused of practicing sorcery. In the United States, Republican presidential candidates are promising to replace our nation’s institutions of religious freedom with a system of theocracy that promotes Christianity above all alternatives. Under Barack Obama, George W. Bush’s system of government patronage of religion that allows public money to be used to discriminate against religious minorities has been expanded without reform.
There’s no need for Jonathan Turley to go making up stories about threats to religious freedom.