On January 30th, the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) and the European Humanist Federation (EHF) announced a new project to help abolish blasphemy laws around the world. In many parts of the world, any criticism of religion can lead to a prison sentence or worse. The End Blasphemy Laws campaign has a lofty goal to reach.
A new international campaign launches today, Friday 30 January, aimed at abolishing “blasphemy laws” worldwide.
The End Blasphemy Laws campaign is thought to be the first campaign focusing solely on the issue of laws against “blasphemy” including “ridicule” and “insult” to religion or “hurting religious sentiments”.
The coalition behind the campaign, led by the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) and the European Humanist Federation (EHF) and numerous coalition partners, currently represents around 200 Humanist and secular organizations globally, and is open to all groups who oppose “blasphemy” laws, including religious and secular communities, human rights groups, and all advocates of freedom of expression.
Sonja Eggerickx, President of the IHEU, said,
“In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo killings there have been renewed calls to abolish ‘blasphemy’ and related laws in almost every country where they still exist. Our organizations have worked for many years to protect this important right: to question, criticise, and yes even ridicule religion. Given this new impetus to challenge these anachronistic laws, we believe that we can work together across national boundaries to support local voices calling for the repeal of all such laws.
“The idea that it is wrong to satirize religion, lends false legitimacy to those who murder in the name of being offended. The idea that it is taboo to question or to criticise religious authorities is one reason why sexual abuse in the Catholic Church persisted so long. The idea that “insult” to religion is a crime, is why humanists like Asif Mohiuddin are jailed in Bangladesh, is why secularists like Raif Badawi are being lashed in Saudi Arabia, is why atheists and religious minorities are persecuted in places like Afghanistan, Egypt, Pakistan, Iran, Sudan, and the list goes on!”
Pierre Galand, EHF President, explained,
“Our campaign does not target laws against incitement to hatred, which are legitimate. What we are concerned about is laws which restrict freedom of expression about religion. As a first step, we want to see the remaining laws against blasphemy and religious insult in Europe repealed. There is an obvious double standard issue as the EU has taken a clear stand against blasphemy laws in the world. Now it must encourage its Members States to abolish existing blasphemy laws, as recommended by the Council of Europe.”
The campaign calls on transnational bodies and world leaders to look on “blasphemy” laws as they might look on laws restricting press freedom: as a clear restriction on free expression and indicator of wider social harm.
Meanwhile, officials in Saudi Arabia have had the opposite response to Charlie Hebdo, arguing for a United Nations resolution on “contempt of religion”, which the UN has reportedly agreed for discussion. The End Blasphemy Laws campaign website succinctly replies: “First the OIC and its member states pushed for an international ban on blasphemy, then defamation of religion, now contempt of religion. It all means the same thing. Namely, they don’t want to hear people question, criticise or mock religion. But the OIC’s envisaged ban on “contempt of religion” cannot happen without fundamentally compromising freedom of expression, and that is why we must work to oppose restrictions on criticising religion, and it is why over time, all free and democratic states will repeal their blasphemy laws.”
And don’t just assume the danger of Blasphemy laws only exist in Islamic countries.
Canada has a blasphemy law on the books:
However, section 296(1) of the Criminal Code says that “Blasphemous Libel” is an indictable offence and is punishable with imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years.
Conversely, some remarks that may constitute incitement to hatred may be protected if they are alleged to be based on “religion”. Section 319 of The Criminal Code makes the public incitement of hatred of identifiable groups an offence punishable by an imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years. However, section (3, b) of the same law exempts such hatred speech from prosecution “if, in good faith, the person expressed or attempted to establish by an argument an opinion on a religious subject or an opinion based on a belief in a religious text;”. As a result, some religious leaders take advantage of this exemption and promote anti-atheist or ethnic hate speech with full impunity providing they use quotes from “sacred” texts.
While here in the US we don’t have Blasphemy laws per se, since we have a constitutional right to criticize religion and to dissent against religious beliefs, there have been efforts to apply special treatment to those who hold religious beliefs like the recent Hobby Lobby court decision due to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) of 1993. Many US states have or are trying to enact their own version of the RFRA.
Humanists take on Blasphemy laws because one of our principles is that all ideas should be open to question including our own. Blasphemy laws criminalize the questioning of particular ideas.
No one should be put into prison or murdered because they hold contrary beliefs to the majority or government.
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