Islamism Grows Stronger at the United Nations
By David Littman
Danish translation: Islamismen vokser sig stærkere i FN
Source: The Middle East Forum, September 1999
Published on August 19, 2013
Middle East Quarterly. September 1999, pp. 59-64

In recent years, representatives of some Muslim states have demanded, and often received, special treatment at the United Nations mostly via the Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR). As a result, non-diplomatic terms such as "blasphemy" and "defamation of Islam" have seeped into the United Nations system, leading to a situation in which non-Muslim governments accept certain rules of conduct in conformity with Islamic law (the Shari`a) and acquiesce to a self-imposed silence regarding topics touching on Islam. This pattern of behavior has emerged with regard to a host of issues—Salman Rushdie, Muslim antisemitism, Islamic alternatives to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), a "defamation of Islam" resolution, and the actions of the Sudanese government.

Salman Rushdie

The United Nations took little interest when Ayatollah Khomeini issued an edict in February 1989 that condemned British writer Salman Rushdie to death for his novel, The Satanic Verses, which is "in opposition to Islam, the Prophet, and the Qur'an" as the edict affirms; if anything, most member states tried to ignore the whole episode. It took four full years before the greatest freedom-of-expression case of our time found an even implicit mention in a UNCHR resolution (the one that annually criticizes Iran for human rights violations):

[The UNCHR] also expresses its grave concern that there are continuing threats to the life of a citizen of another State which appears to have the support of the Government of the Islamic Republic of Iran and whose case is mentioned in the report of the Special Representative. [1]

By 1999, the UNCHR chose to accept at face value "the assurances given by the Government of Iran in New York in September 1998," [2] when Foreign Minister Kamal Kharazi said his government would no longer seek to end Rushdie's life. In the process, the commission preferred to ignore Kharazi's acknowledgment that he was saying nothing new ("We did not adopt a new position with regard to the apostate Salman Rushdie, and our position remains the same"); [3] it also disregarded statements by leading regime officials threatening Rushdie's life. For example, it made no difference that ‘Ayatollah Hasan Sana'i, head of a leading foundation, stated on February 14, 1999, that "Iran is serious and determined in the execution of God's order. The idea of Rushdie's annihilation is a living idea looking for an appropriate opportunity." [4]

This attitude of indifference emboldened member states of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) sympathetic to the enhancement of the Shari‘a, and they proceeded to try to introduce Khomeini-style restrictions on freedom of speech about certain political aspects of Islam to the United Nations itself. Thus did the "Rushdie rules" begin affecting U.N. bodies, and especially the Commission on Human Rights, eating away at international norms.

"Human Rights in Islam"

The Cairo Declaration. On August 5, 1990, the 19th Islamic Conference of Foreign Ministers adopted the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam (CDHRI). The CDHRI is very precise: according to the official English version, "All the rights and freedoms stipulated in this Declaration are subject to the Islamic Shari’a," (article 24) and "The Islamic Shari’a is the only source of reference for the explanation or clarification of any of the articles of this Declaration" (article 25). In other words, by establishing Shari’a law as "the only source of reference" for the protection of human rights in Islamic countries, the Cairo Declaration gives it supremacy over the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

In spite of this self-evident contradiction between the CDHRI and the UDHR, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights published the former document in December 1997, [5] thereby seeming to give it a certain authority within the United Nations. And, sure enough, the CDHRI then became a quotable source at the United Nations. For example, the twenty-six members of the Sub-Commission on Human Rights referred to it in the preamble to a resolution adopted on August 21, 1998, on the situation of women in Afghanistan:

Deeply concerned at the situation of the female population of Kabul and other parts of Afghanistan controlled by the Taliban; dismayed by the Taliban's claim that Islam supports their policies concerning women; fully aware that the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam, adopted by the Organization of the Islamic Conference in 1990, guarantees the rights of women in all fields. … [6]

An "Islamic Perspectives" seminar. On the initiative of Iran's Foreign Minister Kamal Kharazi, who called for a "revision of the Declaration [UDHR]" in his address to the UNCHR on March 17, 1998, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights hosted a seminar in Geneva entitled "Enriching the Universality of Human Rights: Islamic Perspectives on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights," on November 9-10, 1998. At the event, which was financed by the OIC countries at a cost of nearly $500,000, twenty Muslim experts on Islam presented papers with the aim of ...

expounding the Islamic perspectives as to human rights and recall the contribution of Islam to the laying of the foundations of these rights through which Islam aimed at leading people out of the obscurities and into enlightenment, at ensuring dignity in their life and non-submission to anyone but God, and at asserting their freedom and their right to justice and equality on the basis of the two sources of Islamic Shari'a: Qur'an and Sunna and on Fiqh jurisprudence. [7]

Although the seminar's stated purpose was "to promote understanding and respect among peoples," the audience of over 250 representatives from more than eighty states, intergovernmental and U.N. bodies, and forty-one non-governmental organizations (NGOs) had no chance to speak, for the discussion was restricted to participants. The invitation noted that to promote "understanding and respect among peoples, we have designed the seminar to have a scholarly focus and to be a venue for exchanges of scholarship, views, and opinions. It will not be called upon to reach conclusions, adopt positions, or review country practices." [8] Understanding and respect may have been the stated goal, but in fact the seminar rendered impossible the open discussion of issues. Observers agreed that this format was unprecedented within the United Nations system; certainly, it was much deplored, even by some diplomats from OIC member states.

No Muslim Antisemitism

The governments of the Organization of the Islamic Conference reached a decision in 1996 at their summit held in Tehran that Ambassador Munir Akram of Pakistan would later explain to the Commission on Human Rights as calling for "pragmatic and constructive steps to counter the negative propaganda against Islam; to remove and rectify misunderstandings; and to present the true image of Islam: the religion of peace and tolerance." [9]

Four months later, the OIC began to apply this decision at the United Nations. On the very last day of the UNCHR's 1997 session, the representative of Indonesia, Agus Tarmidzi, speaking on behalf of the OIC countries, took the floor to protest a passage in a report by Benin's Maurice Glélé-Ahanhanzo, the U.N. special rapporteur on racism. Focusing on information under the subheading "Islamist and Arab Anti-Semitism," the Indonesian ambassador referred to a quotation from a book on antisemitism that reads:

The use of Christian and secular European antisemitic motifs in Muslim publications is on the rise, yet at the same time, Muslim extremists are turning increasingly to their own religious sources, first and foremost the Qur'an, as a primary anti-Jewish source. [10]

Tarmidzi called this a "defamation of our religion Islam and blasphemy against its Holy Book Qur'an." That same evening, the UNCHR's fifty-three member states—including the United States and several Western countries—adopted a decision by consensus, that ...

Express[ed] its indignation and protest at the content of such an offensive reference to Islam and the Holy Qur'an; affirmed that this offensive reference should have been excluded from the report; requested the chairman to ask the special rapporteur to take corrective action in response to the present decision. [11]

That request was promptly carried out and the "offensive reference" was duly excised. [12]

But this was not enough. On July 22, 1997, at the Geneva session of the U.N.'s Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), Indonesia, speaking for the OIC, again referred to the "outrageous reference to Islam and to the Qur'an" contained in the report on racism, which had been excised in a corrigendum two weeks earlier. Some of the OIC speakers even demanded that the very subheading, "Islamist and Arab Anti-Semitism," be excised—a demand subsequently reiterated by Iran and Sudan. [13]

Interestingly, not one of these representatives attempted to refute the "outrageous reference"; heaping scorn on it and making sure it was not repeated sufficed for them. Perhaps their reluctance to deal with the facts of the matter has to do with the irrefutable evidence that Islamists constantly use religious sources for what is spoken and written critically on the subject of Jews in Arabic and Persian. Thus the accusation of "blasphemy" amounts to an attempt to make special rapporteurs exercise self-censorship.

And, indeed, such self-censorship has occurred, as can be seen in the 1999 report of the special rapporteur on racism, where the subheading which caused the furor in 1997, "Islamist and Arab Anti-Semitism," is now conspicuously absent. [14] Although Glélé-Ahanhanzo again refers to the same Israeli publication as he did in 1997, he omits any reference to its twenty-five pages on antisemitism in Arab countries and Iran. [15] In fact, he does not even mention any evidence of antisemitism in the Muslim world.

"Defamation of Islam"

In contrast to the last-minute efforts in 1997, the OIC countries began their efforts to pass a resolution (under the agenda item "Racism") condemning what they called the "Defamation of Islam" right at the start of the UNCHR's 1999 session. They claimed—in negotiations with the European Union (EU), the United States, and other delegations—that "Islam, one of the principal religions of the world, is being slandered in different quarters, including in human rights fora." [16] On behalf of the OIC countries, Pakistan's Ambassador Akram on April 29, 1999, introduced draft resolution L.40, entitled the "Defamation of Islam." To justify this text, he compared "the emergence of a new manifestation of intolerance and misunderstanding and misconception of Islam and Muslim peoples in various parts of the world" to "antisemitism in the years of the past."

Akram built his argument in part on the 1997 "blasphemy" decision: "It has already been claimed that Islamic scriptures incite Muslims to violence. This assertion was even included in a human rights report and excised only after the commission acted on this blasphemy." [17] More assertively, Akram made large claims for his religion: "It was Islam which gave the world the first Charter of Human Rights in the Holy Qur'an; the Declaration of Human Rights in Prophet Muhammad's last address; and the first Refugee Convention in the mithâq-i-Medina [Constitution of Medina]." [18]

The Western countries refused, however, to accept a resolution that had the provocative title of "Defamation of Islam." As Germany's Ambassador Wilhelm Höynck put it, on behalf of the European Union: the OIC's draft resolution was selective in nature, focusing "exclusively on what its authors perceive as a negative stereotyping of Islam." Attempts to find a compromise between the two sides were getting nowhere, leading to a threat from Pakistan's ubiquitous ambassador that if the EU and others maintained their position "this will have a lasting impact in the Muslim world." [19] Both sides preferred to avoid a vote—with its unpredictable repercussions—so Höynck, noting that "the European Union is attached to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, as well as to tolerance for all religions," proposed as a title: "Stereotyping of Religions." This the OIC refused.

Finally, the two sides reached a compromise: the title of what became Commission Resolution 1999/82 would be "Defamation of Religions" and the text would not refer exclusively to Islam. [20] Despite this apparent compromise, no one will be misled as to the intent of this resolution. Islam is the only religion mentioned in the text (a preambular paragraph refers to the seminar on "Islamic Perspectives on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights" in November 1998) and the operative paragraph also expresses "deep concern that Islam is frequently and wrongly associated with human rights violations and with terrorism." Thus, a Reuters dispatch dated April 30, 1999, reported that "The U.N. Speaks against Anti-Islam in the Media," and went on to explain that the UNCHR "expressed concern … that Islam was often wrongly blamed for being behind crimes and terrorist acts." The Reuters news item also (correctly) noted that this "was the first time that the panel had adopted a text on defamation of religion."


The case of Sudan's behavior illustrates how concepts such as the "defamation of Islam" have progressed at the UNCHR and affected decisionmaking there. Back in 1994, the Sudanese ambassador circulated a letter to all representatives at the UNCHR accusing the U.N. special rapporteur on Sudan, Gaspar Biro, of making a "vicious attack on the religion of Islam" because portions of his first report indicated inconsistencies between the international human rights conventions (to which Sudan has been a signatory party since 1986) and some provisions of Sudan's Criminal Act of 1991 which follow the Shari’a. [21] However, with no backing from the OIC, the Sudanese government got precisely nowhere; the commission called on it "to comply with applicable international human rights instruments." [22]

Five years later, the situation had changed completely. Appearing at the UNCHR on March 23, 1999, John Garang, chairman of the Sudan Peoples' Liberation Movement (SPLM) and head of the Sudan Peoples' Liberation Army (SPLA), the southern, mostly Christian rebel force fighting the government of Sudan and its Shari’a law since 1983, was prevented from speaking by the Sudanese representatives. Although Garang had been properly accredited by a non-governmental organization, Christian Solidarity International (CSI), before he could reach the second sentence of his speech, on "the genocidal character of the war waged by the present regime in Khartoum," the Sudanese representative stopped him on a "point of order." The chair ruled Garang in order. Then Sudan requested a vote and, after a few exchanges and a recess, the chair gave Garang the floor, only to rule him out of order on a point of procedure (namely, that "the statement being made by the representative of CSI was not germane to the agenda item").

Technically speaking, the Sudanese government had a point: CSI had made two minor errors (Garang's statement was not as integrated into the agenda item as the rules of procedure required and his statement was distributed on SPLM letterhead, not CSI's). With this, the most important leader of the southern Sudanese people was silenced, unable to ask the UNCHR plenum what just one day earlier he had asked an audience of representatives from governments and non-governmental organizations and at a press conference:

In 1992 the regime in Khartoum declared jihad against the people of southern Sudan and the Nuba Mountains. Since then jihad has been declared again and again. I ask this very important question: is the jihad a religious right of those who declare and wage it, or is it a violation of the human rights of the people against whom it is declared and waged? [23]

Nor was this all. The government of Sudan, angered by CSI's constant denunciation of its many human rights violations, particularly slavery, seized on this technical pretext to oust CSI from all U.N. bodies. On June 17 in New York, twelve of the nineteen members of the U.N. Committee on NGOs (Sudan, Pakistan, Algeria, Tunisia, Lebanon, Senegal, Ethiopia, Turkey, India, China, Russia, and Cuba) voted to recommend that the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) withdraw CSI's accreditation; four abstained, and the United States cast the only no vote. Seth Winnick, the U.S. representative, later commented that "The committee acted grossly in violation of the norms of due process. This committee is not competent to act." [24] Then, at a final ECOSOC meeting of July 30, 1999, a decision by consensus sent the flawed recommendation back to the Committee on NGOs, allowing CSI until August 31 to submit a report and a response. The ECOSOC verdict on CSI is potentially a precedent of considerable importance, for it is often by votes on relatively minor issues such as this that one sees which way the wind is blowing at the United Nations.


The new rules of conduct being imposed by the OIC, and acceded to by other states, give those who claim to represent Islam an exceptional status at the United Nations that has no legal basis and no precedent; it therefore gives ample reason for apprehension. Will a prohibition of discussion about certain political aspects of Islam become generally accepted at the United Nations and beyond, contradicting "the right to freedom of opinion and expression" promised by Article XIX of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights? Unless farsighted states, both Muslim and non-Muslim, make it their business to assert and reassert the need for freedom of speech, this precious liberty is at risk of being eroded throughout the system of international organizations.


[1] UNCHR Resolution 1993/62, para. 5.

[2] UNCHR Resolution 1999/13, 1 (f) However, the same resolution under 3(e): "expresses its concern … At continuing threats by the Fifteen Khordad Foundation to the life of Mr. Salman Rushdie including the increase in the bounty announced by the foundation."

[3] Voice of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Oct. 3, 1998.

[4] Reuters, Feb. 14, 1999.

[5] Human Rights: A Compilation of International Instruments, Vol. II: Regional Instruments (New York and Geneva: United Nations, 1997), vol. 2, pp. 474-484.

[6] The reference is to CDHRI article 6 (a): "Woman is equal to man in human dignity, and has rights to enjoy as well as duties to perform ..."

[7] Introductory address by Dr. Azeddine Laraki, secretary-general of the OIC. Provisional publication of the U.N. Office of High Commissioner for Human Rights: HR/IP/SEM/1999/1 (part I), Mar. 15, 1999, p. [6] (GE.99-40940).

[8] Reply (Oct. 16, 1998) from the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to the letter (Sept. 24, 1998) from René Wadlow and David Littman to Mary Robinson.

[9] U.N. recording, Apr. 29, 1999 at the 61st meeting. (The Summary Record: E/CN.4/1999/SR.61 omits this introductory passage).

[10] Dina Porat, et al. eds., Anti-Semitism Worldwide 1995-6 (Tel Aviv: Anti-Defamation League and World Jewish Congress, 1996), p. 4; see also UNCHR: E/CN/1997/71, E-3, chap. II, para.27.

[11] UNCHR 1997/125 in E/CN.4/1997/SR.70.

[12] UNCHR Report on Racism: E/CN.4/1997/71; Corrigendum: E/CN.4/1997/71/Corr.1 of July 8, 1997.

[13] At the August 1997 Sub-Commission on Human Rights and at the 1998 UNCHR. See E/CN.4/1998/SR.11, para.50, and E/CN.4/1998/SR.12, para. 10.

[14] UNCHR Report on Racism: E/CN.4/1999/15, para. 78 and 79 (D. Anti-Semitism).

[15] Dina Porat, et al. eds., Anti-Semitism Worldwide 1997-8 (Tel Aviv: Anti-Defamation League and World Jewish Congress, 1998), pp. 181-205.

[16] This quotation, later dropped, is from the original draft resolution, "Defamation of Islam."

[17] U.N. recording, Apr. 29, 1999, and partially in E/CN.4/1999/SR.61, para 1-2.

[18] Other speakers, such as Sheikh Jasim Bin Nasir ath-Thani, the head of Qatar's delegation, concurred with this argument: "There is no doubt that Islam, which preceded the Universal Declaration on Human Rights by fourteen centuries was first in declaring equality among humans in all rights and responsibilities, and in defining rights and freedoms both for individuals and groups." Quoted from the delegation's text, delivered on Apr. 1, 1999; (also E/CN.4/1999/SR.13, para. 95).

[19] U.N. recording, Apr. 29, 1999, and partially in E/CN.4/1999/SR.61, para 1-2.

[20] U.N. recording, Apr. 29 and 30, 1999; E/CN.4/1999/SR.61-62.

[21] Letter dated Feb. 18, 1994 (E/CN.4/1994/122); Report on Sudan by Dr. Gaspar Biro (E/CN.4/1994/48).

[22] UNCHR Resolution 1994/79 (5), and subsequently 1995/77 (9); 1996/73 (8); 1997/59 (9); 1998/67 (8); 1999/15 (4).

[23] From the undelivered statement of John Garang, point 2; and from the circulated SPLM press statement, point 8 (Mar. 22, 1999).

[24] Associated Press, June 18, 1999; Reuters, June 18, 1999.

David Gerald Littman

David Gerald Littman (July 4, 1933 – May 20, 2012) was a British historian and a human rights activist at the United Nations in Geneva, representing various NGOs.

David Littman was born on July 4, 1933, in London, England. He was educated at Canford School, Dorset, England (1951), and Trinity College, Dublin, where he earned his BA with honors and MA degrees in Modern History and Political Science, followed by post-graduate studies at the Institute of Archaeology, University of London. He married his Egyptian-born wife Gisèle (née Orebi) (later known by her nom de plume Bat Ye'or), in September 1959. They moved to Lausanne, Switzerland, the following year.

The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization was founded by his brother, Louis Littman.

Source: Wikipedia