This year marks the 500th anniversary of the birth of John Calvin, the Protestant reformer. The occasion will be celebrated with enthusiasm here in his adopted home of Geneva, which calls itself "Calvin's city" to this day, and where municipal monuments identify it as "the city of refuge." It was the birthplace of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and welcomed him back at one point in his turbulent life.
Calvin's life and works are debated among Christians, since his influence produced repression in Geneva for no less than criticism of established religion. But the Genevois seem united in their affection for him, and hold him out as a model for others. A special issue of L'Hebdo, a local weekly, titled "A Man Named Calvin" and sold as a souvenir of the quincentenary, includes an introductory comment by its editor, Isabelle Falconnier: "To combat one's enemies is one thing--it is another to rise up against one's peers. There is no greater courage. When 1,500 Catholics march in Central Switzerland to protest against a decision of the Pope, that is what we see." The latter comment referred to a March 2009 demonstration in Lucerne against the papal rehabilitation of four traditionalists, including a Holocaust denier. Falconnier continued, "When Muslims raise their voices against Islamist extremists, the same courage is present."
Fine words, but at the Durban Review conference held in Geneva in April, sympathy for anti-radical Muslims was absent. This outcome was by no means predetermined. Geneva is infamous in moderate Muslim circles as the home of Hani Ramadan, brother of the Islamist "rock star" academic Tariq Ramadan. Hani Ramadan came forward in 2002 with an article in the Paris daily Le Monde defending the stoning of adulterous women. In the uproar produced by that indiscreet exercise, Hani Ramadan lost his job as an imam at a Geneva mosque as well as a post teaching in a Swiss high school.
But the United Nations, not the Genevan authorities, controls what goes on inside the Palais des Nations, where the Durban Review conference was held. The "U.N. state" on Geneva's territory is reminiscent of any totalitarian dictatorship, with its armed police, denial of credentials to and expulsions from the proceedings without appeal, and general atmosphere of conformist opinion. In the Palais des Nations, "the public" is defined not as ordinary people to whom the doors are open, but as members of accredited non-governmental organizations providing an audience while the heads of U.N. member governments deliver their opinions.
And on U.N. territory, fanatical support for Islamist ideology, hatred, and totalitarianism trumped Geneva's traditions. While the world watched, the Durban Review was dominated by Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, railing against Israel, as one component in a pseudo-historical lecture that should have been embarrassing to the people of his country, which has a high level of education and, in the past, held unparalleled standing as an Islamic civilization. According to the Tehran demagogue, by "exploiting the holocaust and . . . the pretext of protecting the Jews" powerful countries made the Palestinians homeless victims of "a completely racist government . . . the most aggressive, racist country."
Ahmadinejad's hateful outbursts were accompanied by his polemics against suppression of dissent in medieval Europe and in condemnation of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, without mention that both slavery and repression of opinion were as prevalent in the Islamic world as in the West. The Iranian leader seemed incapable of reflection on the way in which, while justifying hatred and prejudice, he claimed to oppose "racism, discrimination, aggression, and tyranny"--four words that neatly sum up the history of the Iranian clerical regime.
Some countries boycotted the Durban Review conference altogether--Australia, Canada, Germany, Israel, Italy, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Poland, and the United States. Ahmadinejad's ramblings also caused a temporary departure from the hall by delegates from Austria, Britain, Belgium, Bulgaria, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, and Sweden--but most of them walked back in when the Persian fireworks had ended.
The Iranian's harangue was seen by some at the conference as, if not an embarrassment, at least an incentive to speed up adoption of the "Durban Review Conference outcome document," which was approved the same day, in a hurried manner, without discussion. The "outcome document" did not mention Israel; running to 143 repetitive clauses, it even included a statement (clause 66) in which it "recalls that the Holocaust must never be forgotten," coming after three sections dealing with the trans-Atlantic slave trade. The "outcome document" was perceived to have skipped over another equally, if not more controversial issue at the event: an attempt by Muslim states to establish an international law against "defamation of religion," which many observers correctly identified as a gambit to stifle critics of Islam. The document included (clause 13) a statement that the U.N. "reaffirms that any advocacy of national, racial, or religious hatred that includes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence shall be prohibited by law." Since a reference to "hostility" constitutes weasel-wording, which could be applied to criticism of anybody, it would seem the Islamist elements in the U.N. got their way.
But the language of the "outcome document" was mild compared to the measures demanded, the same day as the Ahmadinejad tirade, by a representative of that incomparable exemplar of denial of human rights, the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Abdulwahab Attar, Saudi permanent representative to the U.N., called for "effective and practical steps . . . to curb . . . intolerance and xenophobia," but most particularly to prevent "defamation of all prophets, whether Muhammad, Abraham, Moses, Jesus . . . or others."
President Obama rightly placed the United States among the countries boycotting Durban II, as it was generally called, but some American and other dissenting voices fought to be heard. The Hudson Institute, which stood among the long roster of non-governmental organizations accredited to the conference, sponsored a panel on the Holocaust with the participation of Elie Wiesel and Natan Sharansky, as well as a colloquium of moderate Muslims who condemned any attempt to limit criticism of religions on the pretext of combating discrimination.
In the latter discussion, Veli Sirin, a young member of the Alevi youth movement in Germany, representing Turkish and Kurdish adherents to a heterodox form of Islam, memorialized the victims of a massacre in 1993, when Turkish Sunni bigots surrounded a hotel in the city of Sivas and set the building afire, chanting "We want Shariah!" Some 20,000 fanatics were mobilized by clerics angered that the Alevis had called a cultural conference, honoring a 15th-century mystical poet, Pir Sultan Abdal, and featuring Aziz Nesin, a Turkish author who had criticized Islam and defended Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses. In the carnage, 35 people were killed, while, as Sirin noted, police videotaped the events, but otherwise "stood and watched, refusing to stop the mob."
Sirin's speech was, perhaps predictably, a lightning-rod for Turkish diplomats at the session. One such cautioned those in the audience not to believe the Alevi "allegations and distortions" in recounting the Sivas events, while admitting that the fire and deaths were a "tragedy." Another Turkish representative declared himself "a Sunni Turk but an Alevi at heart," doing his best to shift the blame away from the Turkish state, by holding it up as a paragon of secularism.
The ghosts of Geneva are not limited to those of Calvin and Rousseau, who might find that the U.N. has overturned the order of their "city of refuge" by welcoming Ahmadinejad and other hatemongers. Specters in the Palais des Nations at Geneva must also include many more people consigned to tyranny and death by the U.N. and its predecessor, the League of Nations. In 1931, the League stood aside while Japan ripped Manchuria away from China. In 1936, a world then obsessed with newsreel reporting watched as the noble Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie, whose country had been brutally attacked and then annexed by fascist Italy, was shouted down while speaking before the League. The League of Nations could do nothing to impede Hitler's invasion of the Rhineland, as Nazi Germany had already written off the League by leaving it in 1933. The same League presided over the destruction of the Spanish Republic, through three years from 1936 to 1939.
The League of Nations' history of passivity in the face of atrocity continued with the appearance of the U.N., which while hearing endless fulmination over the Palestinians, does nothing about, to cite one major case, Tibet (and a Tibetan NGO was excluded from the Durban Review.) The U.N. was oblivious to the suffering of Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1992-95, and has conducted a disastrous policy as a local governing authority in Kosovo. It is therefore unsurprising that while condemning intolerance the U.N. would support official Muslim suppression of criticism. But criticism has always been the basis of religious thought, from the time of Abraham to that of Calvin and, as the Swiss L'Hebdo proclaims, to the present.
Can the U.N. be saved from itself? Perhaps not. When Woodrow Wilson went to Versailles in 1919, attending the talks that led to the League's establishment, he held up the banner of freedom for small nations. But the League, like the U.N., was founded to support peace between states, not freedom for the nations. There is something in this about which Americans, who historically put freedom above peace, should feel uncomfortable. Still, I appeal to the ghosts: Am I not right, Rousseau? Am I not right, Haile Selassie?
Stephen Schwartz spoke at the Hudson Institute's Durban Review forum on the need for criticism in religion.