Blasphemy! Free Speech is sacred too.

by: Joseph Isho Levinson

September 25, 2012


There are currently countries in the world where speaking out unfavorably of the state’s majority religion is regarded as a criminal act. The penalties for such behavior, whether real or perceived, range from fines and incarceration, and all the way to execution. That is, if angry mobs and rioters don’t have a say on your fate first. Do your neighbors in Egypt mistakenly believe you’ve spoken ill of their religion’s prophet? It doesn’t matter. You’ll be incarcerated under the country’s Blasphemy laws, as is the case of Alber Saber, a young atheist now facing up to three years in prison. (He was recently attacked by fellow inmates with a razor to the neck. Fortunately, the blade wasn’t sharp enough to kill him). (For a petition to free Alber Saber, click here)

Free Alber Saber

It would be less worrying if similar cases didn’t come by the hundreds (that we know of) all over the world, and if there wasn’t a renewed petition at the U.N.’s General Assembly to establish an International Law against the defamation of religions currently being discussed. Previously, the unintentionally ironic U.N. Commission for Human Rights passed such resolution from 1999 to 2005, as did the U.N. Human Rights Council from 2006 to 2010, but have removed it since March 2011, as not enough U.N. members ratified the proposal in order to make it binding. An independent report by Human Right First recounted hundreds of cases of blasphemy law abuses, and concluded that blasphemy laws “Stifle Discussion and Dissent in the Public Sphere; Spark Outbreaks of Mob Violence; Violate Freedom of Religion, Thought, or Belief; Are Used as a Weapon to Settle Private Disputes.” (For full report, click here)

Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, on the other hand, has advocated for these laws. In response to the recent violence outbreak in Muslim majority countries over the ludicrous, low budget, and terribly conceived YouTube video “The Innocence of Muslims,” he said: “When it is in the form of a provocation, there should be international legal regulations against attacks on what people deem sacred, on religion.” Turkey, who heads the OIC, is reintroducing the defamation of religion resolution at the U.N., previously drafted by Pakistan, where most of the abuses documented by Human Rights First took place.

Blasphemy Protest

The idea of penalizing free speech at the International level is frightening, not so because it may actually happen (it’s approval in Western societies is low), but because just by taking it to the United Nations arena, it will be used to legitimize archaic forms of governance where persecution over free thought is the norm. Andrew Copson, Chief Executive of the British Humanist Association, said it best: “All ‘blasphemy’ laws are deeply regressive: they are impossible to implement without fundamentally contradicting freedom of religion or belief and freedom of expression as the U.N. has itself made clear; ‘blasphemy’ laws render all meaningful dialogue between religions, and between religious people and non-religious people, potentially liable to some inflated charge and prosecution; and indeed in all countries which have them ‘blasphemy’ laws are used to suppress legitimate criticism of religion or to outright persecute minorities (both religious and non-religious).” (For Copson’s full essay, click here)


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