It is disheartening to know that laws still exist today that criminalizes certain expressions as blasphemous. It is even more worrisome to know that such cases are still taken so seriously as to be punishable by death penalty in places like Pakistan, Saudi-Arabia and Iran.
What is more annoying is the boundary between qualifies as ‘blaspeheme’ and what does not which has become so blurred. In Germany, for instance, bashing of religious committments, religious societies or organisations are ‘criminal’ offenses, most especially if viewed as capable of rocking public peace. But religious fundamentalist groups are already perceiving a lot of issues as blasphemes, issues such as general denial of gods, cursing of religious symbols and religious contents (for example the movie “Dogma”). Although Germany has a good record of free speech, we are still suffering from an ongoing process of christian dependency. Sometimes we are walking two steps forward and three steps backwards again. Tension often exists between political freedom, particularly freedom of speech, and certain examples of art, literature, speech or other acts considered by some to be sacrilegious or blasphemous.
Although many laws prohibiting blasphemy have long been repealed, particularly in the West, they remain in place in many countries and jurisdictions. In some cases such laws are still on the books, but are no longer actively enforced. The issue of freedom of speech versus blasphemy cannot be seen in isolation from the role of religion as a source of political power in some societies. In such a society, to blaspheme is to threaten not only a religion, but also the ‘political power that be’, (those in government), in such cases popular responses to blasphemy tend to be more severe and violent.
Across a large swathe of the Middle East and beyond, we find countries whose state religion is Islam. In such instances, Shari’a law reigns supreme. Shari’a law, as commonly interpreted, has many incompatibilities with universal human rights. Saudi Arabia even denies the right to practise any religion other than Islam. But Islam is not alone in posing a threat to human rights and secularism. The Catholic Holy See’s special status at the United Nations enables it to meddle in international deliberations in a way that is not available to other religions or to organisations representing non-believers such as IHEU. The churches in general have fought hard against equality and human rights for all, and are still fighting to maintain discrimination against homosexuals. Ditto Islam (some Islamic countries even demand death penalty for homosexuality).
In general, states that give a privileged position to religion are doing so at the expense of human rights. Religious leaders often interpret a desire for secularism as an atheistic attack on all that is good. While many supporters of secularism may indeed be atheists (or simply humanists), many others are religious believers. A truly secular state allows free choice in matters of religion or belief. Secularism, rightly understood, far from being against religion, provides the only possible level playing field for all religions and none.
Religious believers have nothing to fear from secularism apart from loss of the ability to impose their belief system on others. The new draft resolution on freedom of expression from the Human Rights Council fails to mention the fastest-growing threat to freedom of expression: intolerance in the name of religion.
IHEYO, as a youth-led organisation, will continue to do its best to educate and speak openly on this vital issue, threatening the norms of secularism, in publications, seminars and conferences. This we can guarantee, come what may.
See you in Nepal!
Silvana Uhlrich, President IHEYO