Worldwide Poll Finds Strong Support for Right to Criticize Religion

A survey of 20 nations has found strong support for the right to criticize religion.

According to the survey of more than 18,000 people, 57 percent agreed that "people should be allowed to publicly criticize religion because people should have freedom of speech." Meanwhile, 34 percent of all respondents said they supported the right of governments "to fine or imprison people who publicly criticize a religion because such criticism could defame the religion."

The strongest support for the right to criticize religion came from the United States, where 89 percent said public criticism should be allowed, followed by Chile (82 percent)m and Mexico (81 percent). Britain came fourth, with 81 percent supporting the right to criticize religion.

The seven nations with a majority of support for prohibitions on the right to criticize religion, meanwhile, had overwhelmingly Muslim populations. In Egypt, 71 percent agreed that criticism of religion should be prohibited, followed by Pakistan (62 percent), and Iraq (57 percent).

The poll, conducted by WorldPublicOpinion.org, was released Monday as the U.N. General Assembly prepared to debate a proposal calling for the prohibition of the defamation of religions.

The proposal, put forward by the Organization of the Islamic Conference, which represents 56 Muslim nations, calls on all nations of the world "to effectively combat defamation of all religions and incitement to religious hatred in general and against Islam and Muslims in particular."

The U.N. resolutions have alarmed human rights groups and faith bodies who warned in a joint statement earlier this month that the proposals are "incompatible with the fundamental freedoms of individuals to freely exercise and peacefully express their thoughts, ideas, and beliefs."

 "Unlike traditional defamation laws, which punish false statements of fact that harm individual persons, measures prohibiting the `defamation of religions' punish the peaceful criticism of ideas," stated signatories of the statement, which included the Baptist World Alliance, Christian Solidarity Worldwide, the Jubilee Campaign and Open Doors.

"Additionally, the concept of `defamation of religions' is fundamentally inconsistent with the universal principles outlined in the United Nations' founding documents, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which affirms the protection of the rights of individuals, rather than ideas," they added.

According to CSW Advocacy Director Tina Lambert, the resolutions threaten to undermine existing international human rights protections related to religion, belief and freedom of expression.

"A legally-binding treaty would enable states to justify dubious domestic legislation such as the blasphemy law in Pakistan as a 'human rights' requirement," she said.

"For the sake of those who already suffer unjustly under such legislation and for the protection of our existing international human rights framework, it is vital that member states act to prevent such a treaty or optional protocol being established," Lambert concluded.

Since 1999, the Organization of the Islamic Conference has annually sponsored a "defamation of religions" resolution in the U.N. Human Rights Council, and, since 2005, in the General Assembly.

Presently, the preliminary vote on the proposed binding treaty is expected before Thanksgiving. The final plenary vote is expected in early to mid-December.