U.N. expert: Defaming religions a threat

Geneva, Switzerland - A U.N. expert on racism on Friday branded the defamation of religions — in particular critical portrayals of Islam in the West — a threat to world peace.

"Islamophobia today is the most serious form of religious defamation," Doudou Diene told the U.N. Human Rights Council, which is currently holding a three-week session in Geneva.

Diene cited a caricature of the Muslim Prophet Muhammad in a Swedish newspaper, a protest by far-right groups in Belgium Tuesday against the "Islamization of Europe," and campaigns against the construction of mosques in Germany and Switzerland as evidence of an "ever increasing trend" toward anti-Islamic actions in Europe.

"We see the initiatives and activities of many groups and organizations which are working hard to bring about a war of civilizations," he said, adding that right-wing groups were trying to equate Islam with violence and terrorism.

Diene, a Senegalese lawyer who was appointed as an independent U.N. expert on racism in 2002, was presenting a report on defamation of religions to the 47-member council. The report also includes sections on anti-Semitism and other forms of religious or racial persecution around the world.

African and Islamic countries welcomed the assessment and called for moves to draft an international treaty that would compel states to act against any form of defamation of religion.

"The international media continues to use the misguided actions of a small, extremist minority as an excuse to malign the entire Muslim world, as well as the religion of Islam," Pakistan's representative, Masood Khan, said, speaking on behalf of the Organization of Islamic Conference.

The pressure to protect religions from defamation has been growing ever since a Danish magazine published caricatures of Muhammad, provoking riots across the Islamic world last year in which dozens of people were killed. The publication of a different caricature in a Swedish newspaper last month again led to protests from Muslims.

Islamic tradition forbids pictures of Muhammad, and Muslims claimed the caricatures were intended to insult their faith.

Diene said such caricatures were evidence that "the basic principle of coexistence of different cultures and different religions, which is the lasting basis for peace, is threatened now," adding that "freedom of expression cannot be used as a pretext or excuse for incitement to racial or religious hatred."

European Union members of the council and other countries cautioned against equating criticism of religion with racism.

"The EU finds it problematic to reconcile the notion of defamation with the concept of discrimination," said Goncalo Silvestre of Portugal, who was speaking for the 27-nation bloc. "In our view these two are of a different nature."

Religions in themselves do not deserve special protection under international human rights law, he said.