Saturday, September 26, 2015

International Blasphemy Rights Day

Nilroy Neel is the fourth atheist blogger in Bangladesh hacked to death by machete-wielding Islamic fanatics in six months. Six men entered into his house and while four of them “confined” his wife in another room, the remaining two brutally beheaded him. While such barbarity is not unheard of in Pakistan, prior to 2015, there were six attacks against free-thinkers resulting in two deaths over a period of fifteen years. But, this year alone, four brave secular writers have been hacked to death for the crime of raising their voices against extremism and encouraging equal rights for all.

And this is at least one reason I celebrate International Blasphemy Rights Day and invite and encourage all who value free-thinking, religious freedom, and the free expression of all to join me. What many fail to recognize is that all other recognized rights ultimately depend upon this right to freedom of expression. After all, how could the oppressed have fought for the right to vote, the right to be free from slavery, the right to due process, and the equal rights of LGBTQ people without the ability to publically criticize traditions, dogmas, and ideologies that have kept in place unjustifiable restrictions on liberty, dignity, and autonomy?

Without the right of freedom of expression, there’s no way to openly investigate and determine the truth of any claim, whether in science, politics, philosophy or religion. The right of free expression itself has value for the dignity of the individual in that only with the guarantee of such expression can one express oneself as an individual.

As of 2012, nearly a quarter of the world’s countries (including some among the European Union, Canada, and several of the States of America) has anti-blasphemy laws or policies, and ten-percent penalized apostasy and atheism, with punishments varying from fines to capital punishment! And as we might expect, all thirteen countries that penalize apostasy with execution are Muslim.

Sadly, many “liberals” and “progressives” who, while not favoring punishment of speech critical of religion, all-too-often will condemn criticism of religion, especially when it takes the form of satire. And, if that satire is directed at Islam, the accusation of “racism” or “Islamophobia” is invoked. But make no mistake, those Muslims who object to satire (and any and all criticism) of their religion (including Muhammad) pay little attention to the color, religion, or nationality of the satirists and critics. Raif Badawi, the founder of an online forum allowing diverse views to be expressed freely is currently serving a ten-year prison sentence in Saudi Arabia and has been sentenced to one-thousand lashes and a huge monetary fine. Punjab Governor Salman Taseer, a Muslim, and Minister of Minorities Affairs in Pakistan, was assassinated for criticizing that country’s blasphemy laws. Lawyers representing individuals accused of blasphemy have also been targeted.

Blasphemy laws privilege beliefs over individuals. Such laws are used to suppress individuals, minorities and dissenters. Governments are empowered to use these laws against dissenters, but extremists are also empowered and encouraged to take it upon themselves to violently punish blasphemers and their defenders.

Though such oppressive laws are often touted as necessary to promote religious harmony, they actually lead to religious intolerance, discrimination, and violence. Historical evidence shows that countries that protect freedom of religion for all – including those of the majority faith, minorities, dissenters and those holding no religious beliefs – tend toward greater stability, prosperity and tolerance.

An in-depth exploration of the lasting influence of the fatwa against Salman Rushdie, “The Importance of Being Blasphemous: Literature, Self-Censorship, and the Legacy of The Satanic Verses” by Stephen R. Welch published in the October/November 2015 issue of Free Inquiry details the chilling effect of the liberal appeasement of religious extremists. He writes:

“It is deeply troubling that the lesson learned from Khomeini’s fatwa over the past twenty-six years has not been how to better champion and protect our writers, playwrights, and scholars but rather how to best emulate the ‘rage of Islam’ in order to suppress any speech and art that an aggrieved party can claim has offended them. Free speech has become an indulgence, whereas grievance culture is now an equal-opportunity entitlement.

“The Rushdie affair, as Malik observes, was a watershed. Rushdie’s detractors ‘lost the battle in the sense that they never managed to stop the publication of The Satanic Verses,’ but, he says, ‘they won the war by pounding into the liberal consciousness the belief that to give offence was a morally despicable act.’ We have internalized the fatwa

But perhaps, the tide can still change. In some circles the realization that free expression simply must not be curtailed in a mis-directed, naïve attempt to avoid giving offense to extremists who, if they were to succeed to greater power, would extend no such courtesy to us. For the sake of those who have died for the sake of speaking their minds, we must do all we can to sustain free thought and expression for the sake of all.


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