GENEVA (Reuters) - The world’s top diplomat for Islam called on Friday for an end to what he termed efforts to equate the religion with terrorism and said the ‘demonization’ of Muslims around the world must be fought.
But speaking soon after the U.N. General Assembly passed an Islamic-sponsored resolution condemning “defamation of religion” for the fourth year in a row, Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu said his group was committed to respecting freedom of expression.
There was a “rising tide of incitement to religious hatred and discrimination and intolerance targeting Muslims,” he told a meeting called by the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) at the United Nations in Geneva. The 57-nation OIC, based in Saudi Arabia, represents 1.5 billion Muslims.
“Attempts to equate Islam with terrorism should be stopped. Stereotyping and demonization of Muslims should be combated,” said Ihsanoglu, a Turkish history professor who became OIC Secretary-General in 2005.
In a statement on Ihsanoglu’s remarks, Geneva spokesman for the International Humanist and Ethical Union Roy Brown argued that Islam was often linked to terror because perpetrators of many terrorist acts identify themselves as Muslims.
Critics of the OIC — including countries who voted against the “defamation” motion at U.N. headquarters in New York on Thursday — say many Islamic states use defamation or “blasphemy” laws against minorities and free-thinkers.
Referring to the U.N. vote, in which for the first time since the OIC introduced a “defamation” motion in 2005 more countries voted against or abstained than voted for, Ihsanoglu said the motives of the Islamic grouping were misunderstood.
The aim of the OIC, he declared, “is not to protect religion against critics based on objective and rational interrogation.” The body, he added, “is firmly committed to respect for freedom of expression, which is a fundamental human right.”
In a statement issued earlier this week, watchdogs on freedom of expression for the U.N.’s Human Rights Council and for key regional inter-state organizations in Africa, Europe and Latin America called for an end to “defamation” resolutions.
The four, three of them prominent developing country human rights lawyers, said that where “blasphemy” laws existed they had often been used “to prevent legitimate criticism of powerful religious leaders and to suppress the views of minorities, dissenting believers and non-believers.”
In an echo of their comments, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay told Friday’s meeting that when criticism of religion became incitement to hatred “urgent but proportionate” action should be taken.
But, she added, “speech critical of religions does not necessarily constitute such incitement” and that it should always be assessed “stressing the importance of protecting the rights of both religious minorities and non-believers alike.”
Editing by Stephanie Nebehay and Ralph Boulton