International Blasphemy Rights Day: An Interview With Persecuted Atheists

September 30, 2013

The Center for Inquiry will mark International Blasphemy Rights Day on Monday, September 30, in part by hosting an online discussion with Alber Saber and Kacem El-Ghazzali, both of whom were recently forced to leave their home countries over blasphemy charges. The event will begin at 4 p.m. ET.

What is Blasphemy Rights Day International? What the history of CFI’s work on this issue? And who are Alber and Kacem?

Eight years ago September 30, the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published a dozen cartoons mocking the Islamic prophet Muhammad, sparking protests and deadly riots that left more than 200 people dead around the world.

The Center for Inquiry has defended the full rights to freedom of religion, belief, and expression since its founding. However, the 2005 Jyllands-Posten cartoons incident, during which many leaders around the world condemned the satirization of religion, prompted CFI to become more involved in formal international advocacy. In 2006, under the leadership of Austin Dacey, CFI was approved for special consultative status by the UN Economic and Social Council. Dacey spent the next several years lobbying for basic human rights at the UN headquarters in New York City and Human Rights Council in Geneva.

Then, in 2009, CFI launched a project dedicated to spreading to the broader general public the importance of the specific right to dissent from, or criticize, religion: International Basphemy Rights Day International.

In 2011, I was named director of the CFI’s Office of Public Policy and the organization’s representative to the UN. In this role, I have continued and expanded on Dacey’s work, lobbying the UN, State Department, and United States Commission on International Religious Freedom to forcefully defend the rights to freedom of religion, belief, and expression. Through this work, I have also become personally involved in helping many people in foreign countries who face blasphemy or related charges to receive legal or other assistance. I soon learned that they were not alone: around the world there are hundreds if not thousands of ongoing blasphemy cases — many of which the general public never hears about. Indeed, just last week a Danish court found an artist guilty of racism for writing in a blog post that some Muslim men use Islam to justify violence against women. The website that hosted this blog post? None other than Jyllands-Posten.

Yet, if the public is mostly unaware of these cases, how will we ever achieve change?

To be sure, there has been some progress in this area. Within the halls of the United Nations, resolutions condemning the so-called “defamation of religions,” which passed the General Assembly for ten years straight, have fallen out of favor; new resolutions focus on individual rights. Furthermore, international human rights standards protecting the rights to freedom of religion, belief, and expression have been clarified and strengthened to more explicitly include the rights to be non-religious and to criticize religion. And there appear to be more organizations now working to help those who face persecution for their beliefs or speech.

Unfortunately, however, many countries around the world continue to ignore these resolutions and standards, and prosecute people — both religious and non-religious — for dissenting from religious traditions or expression doubts regarding religious claims.

So, in 2012, I worked with several staff members to launch the Campaign for Free Expression, an effort to promote the cases on which CFI is most closely working. International Blasphemy Rights Day was folded into the Campaign as one of the many things CFI is doing to more broadly promote the rights to freedom of religion, belief, and expression.

In years past, CFI has done a range of things to mark Blasphemy Rights Day International: lectures, art exhibits, essay contests, open mic events, and more.

But this September 30, to mark International Blasphemy Rights Day and continue our Campaign for Free Expression, we have decided to turn our gaze to two of the many cases on which we have worked, those of Alber Saber and Kacem El Ghazzali.

Both Saber and Kacem are young men who were forced to flee their home countries — Egypt and Morocco, respectively — for criticizing religious dogma and actively promoting secular government. Saber was arrested and later convicted for insulting religious sentiments during the 2012 riots over a YouTube video depicting Muhammad in a negative light, which he was alleged to have shared on Facebook. Kacem faced legal and social persecution, including death threats, for his writings on his blog, Atheistica. They both currently reside in Europe.

I will ask Alber and Kacem about their upbringings and how they came to be atheists; about their writings and advocacy, and how they came to face persecution; about how they escaped their countries, and what their future holds; and about how those in better places, such as the U.S., can help people like them.

To join us, all you need to do is come back to this blog post on Monday. By then we will have it updated with a live embedded video feed. All you’ll need to do is press play at 4 p.m. ET.

Have questions for Alber or Kacem? Post them in the comments below and I’ll try to ask them during our conversation.

See you on Monday night!