x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Leaders continue to differ about criticism of faith

The interfaith summit attracts dozens of statesmen to express mankind's common values.

NEW YORK // King Abdullah's interfaith summit at UN headquarters attracted dozens of statesmen to express mankind's common values, but has not smoothed over all the cracks in global relations. The two-day summit in Manhattan advanced the Middle East peace process, with Saudi Arabia's monarch and Shimon Peres, president of Israel, speaking only minutes apart from the same stage about their mutual distaste for conflict. Leaders from the West and the Islamic world attempted to bridge the divide by discussing their shared contempt for extremism, terrorism and ethnically driven violence. But the meeting in midtown New York was expected to conclude without a resolution agreed upon by the UN's 192 members yesterday with leaders continuing to express fundamental disagreements about religion. While many in the Islamic world perceive religion as sacrosanct and beyond criticism, others in the West cherish the freedom to speak openly and criticise or satirise faiths and religious symbols. The most noted example of this disagreement exploded after the Sept 2005 publication of a dozen cartoons satirising the Prophet Mohammed in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten. Like other critiques of Islam - such as Pope Benedict XVI's 2006 address at the University of Regensburg and Salman Rushdie's controversial 1988 novel The Satanic Verses - the cartoons provoked an angry response across the Muslim world. In advance of this week's summit, Saudi Arabia proposed a text to conclude the conference referring to the "mocking of religious symbols" that was rejected by European nations. The fractious issue was broached repeatedly throughout this week's summit, with Sheikh Hamad bin Mohammed, Ruler of Fujairah calling for "the full respect for religions and their symbols". Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabr Al Thani, Qatar's prime minister and minister of foreign affairs, spoke of the urgent need for "hammering out a global document that helps disseminate and promote a culture of respect for religions and religious symbols". Muslim leaders introduced the concept of "defamation of Islam" in 1999 in a bid to counter Islamophobia, although this was later widened as the "defamation of religions" to safeguard against the denigration of any and all faiths. But western nations fear an international moratorium on defamation of religions would provide a cover for oppressive governments to quash religious freedom and marginalise ethnic minorities. Legal objectors point out that religions, unlike individuals, do not possess the relevant rights to safeguard them from libel. Others question whether a faith can technically be defamed because an anti-religious statement cannot be proven either true or false. The UN debate saw Denmark's minister for culture, Carina Christensen, take the podium and, although not directly discussing the cartoon controversy, hinting that attitudes towards civic liberties had changed little in Copenhagen over the past three years. "The setting today reminds us that principles such as freedom of expression and freedom of religion or belief should be the basis of all initiatives aimed at promoting intercultural and interfaith dialogue," Ms Christensen told delegates. French diplomats have been among the most vociferous in protecting freedom of speech, firmly rejecting attempts from Muslim governments to advance a religious agenda through the world body. "Recognising the right to express an opinion and accept differing opinions is also an essential part of the dialogue," Alain Juppé, France's former prime minister and an envoy of Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, told the assembly. "Freedom of religion cannot be achieved without freedom of speech, even if it is sometimes used to express derision." jreinl@thenational.ae