How to Discuss Religion Without Appeasing Tyrants

When discussing religion, how do we know when respecting apparently faith-based beliefs leads to contempt for our beliefs? Should we tolerate the intolerant? These questions are particularly relevant when a secular political body, the United Nations, recently passed an anti-blasphemy measure (backed by the 57-state Organization of the Islamic Conference) combating "defamation of religions."

The Columbia University School of Law conference Candor or Respect: Talking About the Religion of Others, held on February 26, was supposed to focus on the treatment of all religions within the realms of the public sphere (governance, diplomacy, and journalism). It was not supposed to concentrate solely on Islam. But these days, when a discussion focuses on religion, and when panel members agree that "there is reason to believe that a failure of either candor or respect could be profoundly dangerous," the subject of Islam will tend to take center stage.

As several panelists noted, the association of religion with profound danger and abuse would not have occurred to the majority of the population ten years ago. But we all understand the concept now. Speaker Leonard Leo of the Federalist Society said, "We've seen a shift" in the concept of respect for religion since pre-Cold War times. The old definition, described in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, concerned the need to protect religious belief against coercion by the state. The religious defamation resolution that was passed by the UN Human Rights Council in 2008 defines respect of religion as the protection of Islam from "attempts to identify [it] with terrorism, violence, and human rights violations." As Mr. Leo noted, restraints on criticism of Islam were not just directed at states; they were also directed against individuals.

This definition of respect was put forward by the Organization of the Islamic Conference, an organization of 57 states that call themselves "the collective voice of the Muslim world." Flemming Rose, the Jyllands-Posten editor who published the "Danish cartoons," understood why the OIC demanded censorship in the name of "respect." As a former correspondent in the Soviet Union, he saw how the Russian government and mafia used intimidation to gain "respect." In his Washington Post article titled "Why I Published Those Cartoons," he said: "I am sensitive about calls for censorship on the grounds of insult. This is a popular trick of totalitarian movements: Label any critique or call for debate as an insult and punish the offenders. ... The lesson from the Cold War is: If you give in to totalitarian impulses once, new demands follow. The West prevailed in the Cold War because we stood by our fundamental values and did not appease totalitarian tyrants."

Lately, it's sadly obvious that most Western elites have changed their policies on appeasing totalitarian tyrants.