An Islamic initiative to establish an international convention against the "defamation" of religions ran into an unexpected hurdle this week in Saudi Arabia, where members of a government advisory body argued that the move could force Muslims to recognize pagan beliefs.
The drive to outlaw offenses against religions and religious figures is being spearheaded by the 57-member Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) as a response to Western depictions of Islam and Mohammed in ways that Muslims consider insulting.
Although protecting Islam is the goal, in order to win support at the United Nations, the OIC is pushing for a convention against insulting all faiths. Last December, an OIC-led resolution on the "defamation of religions" passed in the U.N. General Assembly by a 108-51 vote, with almost half of the support coming from non-Muslim states.
As a key player in the OIC, Saudi Arabia has a leading role in the campaign.
Saudi Arabia's Shoura Council -- an appointed body that advises the kingdom's unelected government -- this week considered a recommendation that the foreign ministry should coordinate with various groups at the U.N. "to adopt an international convention that prohibits offending religions and religious figures in any way."
The proposal sparked some dissent. Members of the council argued that a convention protecting all religions from defamation would oblige Muslims to tolerate other religious beliefs.
Council member Khaleel al-Khaleel was quoted by the Saudi Gazette as warning against a "trap," and saying that religious concepts differ from country to country and from civilization to civilization.
"Should Muslims be committed to respect and not criticize any deviant creed that some people consider a religion?" he asked.
Another member, Talal Bakri, said a convention against "offending religions" could lead to calls for Muslim countries to allow temples of pagan religions.
Saudi Arabia, which is listed by the State Department as one the world's most egregious violators of religious freedom, does not permit non-Muslim places of worship, including churches and synagogues.
The member of the council who introduced the resolution, Mohammed al-Qowaihis, agreed to replace the words "religious figures" with "prophets and God's Messengers." (In Islam, the term refer to a series of biblical figures from Adam to Jesus -- all of whom are considered prophets of Islam -- as well as Mohammed, the "final prophet.")
But the council still rejected the recommendation by a 77-33 vote.
The Shoura Council, whose members are appointed by the king, is the closest thing Saudi Arabia has to a parliament. Its stance could prove awkward, given the priority the OIC is giving to the issues of "Islamophobia" and slights to Islam, such as cartoons lampooning Mohammed.
The kingdom, the cradle of Islam and home to its most revered sites, hosts the OIC's secretariat and is a major funder. It recently agreed to finance the building of a grand new headquarters for the organization in Jeddah, for which it has donated prime coastal land.
At an OIC summit in Senegal last week where "Islamophobia" was high on the agenda, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal said freedom of expression should not be used as an excuse to infringe "the rights and freedoms of religious beliefs of individuals."
"We call upon the international community and all its civil and official institutions, and its media to respect Islam in its capacity as a divine religion and the most widespread," he said.
The summit voiced its support for a proposal by Moroccan King Mohammed VI, calling for an international convention to define "appropriate controls and rules" for the practice of free speech alongside obligations to respect religious beliefs and symbols.(...more)