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Religious Freedom on the Brink

By Roy Speckhardt


A shorter version of this article was originally published October 12, 2012 by the Huffington Post. Mr. Speckhardt has added several paragraphs at the end, updating his analysis. A library of stories dramatizing his thesis have been written since; his basic focus on the “need to ensure that a person’s freedom of thought and speech is paramount” continues to ground the whole issue of religious freedom. Ed.

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It’s time to reconsider recent reasons for optimism regarding worldwide religious freedom. Recently I wrote about how the Libyan embassy attack taught the world that true religious freedom requires not just that people are able to believe as they so choose, but it also demands the ability to be free from imposed belief and be able to question beliefs as one sees fit. Some leaders like Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon capitalized on the teachable moment to show humanity that while words can hurt, they never justify violence or oppression.

Anaxagoras, drawn as a medieval scholar, though the early Greek philosopher lived 2,500 years ago. Photo: Wikipedia

Anaxagoras, drawn as a medieval scholar, though the early Greek philosopher lived 2,500 years ago. Photo: Wikipedia

But unfortunately, violence in the Middle East and elsewhere continues the long-running tendency to link blood and blasphemy. We haven’t outgrown the outdated attitudes from ancient civilizations where people like Anaxagoras were condemned to death for denying or questioning the existence of gods and a law was adopted that denounced “those who do not believe in the divine beings or who teach doctrines about things in the sky.”

It seems as though many in the world are far more eager to use religion as a tool for consolidating power than are interested in protecting religious freedom and free speech. Countries such as Pakistan, Greece, and Egypt are imprisoning those who dare to speak their mind about religion and belief in general. This undemocratic crackdown on speech is worrying not only because it threatens the concept of religious freedom, but because real human beings around the world are suffering from the effects of this renewed tyrannical campaign that goes on where the attempts to impose blasphemy laws at the UN left off in 2011.

Take the case of a 27-year-old in Greece who was arrested on charges of posting “malicious blasphemy and religious insult” on Facebook. The accused, whose identity has not been made public, had created and managed the Facebook page “Elder Pastitsios the Pastafarian,” a name that plays on a combination of Elder Paisios, a famous Greek-Orthodox monk, and the Greek food pastitsio, a baked pasta dish made of ground beef and béchamel sauce. The picture of Elder Pastitsios has a pastitsio where the monk’s face should be. The fact that a person was arrested for posting a picture of a monk with a plate of pasta for a face is very surreal and might almost be funny if not for the fact that the “blasphemer” is now in prison.

Alber Saber – Photo: Wikipedia

Alber Saber – Photo: Wikipedia

The case of Egyptian atheist Alber Saber is even less funny. On September 13th, two days after the clashes between Egyptian security forces and protesters broke out near the U.S. Embassy over “The Innocence of Muslims” film, neighbors of Saber claimed that he shared the anti-Islam video on Facebook. This led to an angry mob storming Saber’s house and kicking out Saber and his mother. When police arrived, it was Saber who was arrested, not the attackers. Saber’s lawyer said police then incited prisoners against Saber, stating that he was an atheist and claiming he had insulted the Prophet Mohamed. This prompted the prisoners to attack Saber with razors until he was grievously injured. Meanwhile, the mob returned to his home, surrounded the building, and ordered his mother to leave the neighborhood or be burned alive inside the home. Saber’s mother, who is a Coptic Christian, has been in hiding since the attack. And the Egyptian government proceeded to accuse Saber of religious blasphemy, hold him for weeks in custody at a secret location without trial, and eventually sentenced him to six years in prison. [Saber was released on appeal and left Egypt January 13, 2013. Ed.]

Even children aren’t safe from this onslaught against religious freedom and free speech. In Egypt, two children aged nine and ten were arrested and charged with blasphemy in the Upper Egyptian city of Beni Suef after being accused of urinating on copies of the Quran. The defiled Qurans were reportedly found by a sheikh near the village mosque, and the sheikh filed a complaint accusing the two of blasphemy at the local police station.

Unfortunately, 17 cases of religious blasphemy have been filed in Egypt alone in the wake of violent protests against the anti-Islam film “The Innocence of Muslims.” While actions such as those by the two Egyptian youths may be offensive, the arrests made by governments attempting to combat “blasphemy” are the clear problem here. The idea that every human being is free to think and express their beliefs without fear of violence or unjust imprisonment is being threatened by governments that are more concerned about protecting religious beliefs than human rights.

Should we place the right to speak one’s mind over that of protecting the “honor” of religious beliefs? Or do we want to continue following the dictates of the ancient past; copying laws established to forbid certain types of world views and killing people for violating them. The answer should be obvious: we need to ensure that a person’s freedom of thought and speech is paramount. The sacredness some hold for religion must never be written into the law, and blasphemy must never be justification for violence, government-sanctioned or otherwise. If we fail to agree on these basic principles of free expression, the world will quickly become a much less democratic and free place than it is today.

Update – September 2014

Reflecting on the past two years it’s clear that much of the world hasn’t gotten the message that we are one people on this one world we share. The geographic accident of one's place of birth, and the religion and culture to which we are often born into, shouldn’t divide us and be a cause for violent conflict, but instead should be a source of diversity that strengthens our overall approach toward progress on this planet.

Instead we’ve seen Saudi Arabia outlaw atheists, people killed over being the wrong kind of Muslim in Pakistan, and countless more harassed, assaulted, and arrested for various kinds of blasphemy around the world. 

But there are also small victories that give reason for hope. When Twitter shut down tweets it deemed blasphemous from going to Pakistan, the Ex-Muslims of North America lead a successful campaign to get them to reverse their position. The U.S. State Department added atheists and humanists to the list of those it tracks for religious liberty abuses worldwide. And I was pleased to receive an announcement from the White House regarding President Obama’s appointment of Rabbi David Saperstein as Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom. Rabbi Saperstein, longtime leader of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, has been a staunch ally of church-state separation. Hopefully changes like this are the beginning of more protections against discrimination and violence, and that this is a beginning of a deeper mutual understanding that will bring the world together as one people.