Holiday in Kuwait

April 26, 2016


These are dynamic times for humanism. A new generation of humanist thinkers and leaders is emerging around the globe. Challenges to humanist thought and activism, and actual physical danger to those espousing humanist views in hostile political environments, makes even more relevant our advocacy of enlightenment principles. The philosophical crises that seemed for a time to bog down progress for western humanism pale in comparison to the actual, existential crisis faced by bloggers in Bangladesh and philosophers and activists in other such places risking their lives to challenge religious orthodoxy and attempting to bring humanist principles to the fore.

              We take freedom of conscience rather for granted, as we should given its establishment in many western constitutions, and there is very little evidence that it is somehow under any real threat in the West despite concerns about political correctness. Both within and outside of the academy, freedom of speech is well entrenched in our institutions and protected by laws and norms. Serious challenges to it still mainly come from religions that seek to impose their religious norms on the discussion of, and especially criticism of their beliefs. Due to our First Amendment, efforts to institutionalize blasphemy laws are now more or less certain to fail. Elsewhere, that is not the case.

As I have discussed previously, the protection of criticism of states and churches has not always been ingrained in law, nor believed by populations to be essential. Yet free, open, and unlimited critique of any idea, regardless of its sacred status to some group, is a cornerstone of the Enlightenment, and a foundational principle for humanism and liberalism. While we debate the effects of such critique on peoples’ feelings, and the degree to which we ought to respect those feelings in a civil society, elsewhere in the world people are hacked to death for speaking out for their fundamental rights, and expressing opinions.

              Humanism depends upon an unfettered range and depth for inquiry. No idea is immune to challenge, no belief or perception sacred or beyond question. The manner in which we question too must be unfettered, and all logic and rhetoric should be at our disposal for the testing of claims in both private and public discourse. Words and ideas must flow freely for the ongoing dialogue among philosophies to propel us toward a more perfect social order and scientific understanding of the universe. When we begin to appeal to matters of taste, preference, or impact of the words we use in engaging in debate, we risk stifling it.

              In Kuwait, Philosophy professor Sheikha al-Jassem (Shaikha Binjasim) faces losing her job and worse, including legal charges of blasphemy for her public remarks on a television program in which she advocated for secularism, including the separation of politics and religion. The BBC reports that following these remarks, angry calls for her dismissal and a legal complaint ensued. Besides what she reports as severe harassment and threats, the legal complainant against her alleges “psychological damage” due to her mere discussion of secularism. Obviously, the program failed to present an appropriate trigger warning for the religiously-inclined.

              As of yet, the public prosecutor has not charged the professor with blasphemy, although he may yet do so, and her position at Kuwait University has not yet been stripped from her. In any case, the fact that law backs up her prosecution, and that she may yet face trial and imprisonment for expressing an opinion, stands as a stark reminder of the tenuous status of basic human rights, and especially rights of conscience, in much of the world. A detailed account of the status of this case with updates as they occur is available here, at Daily Nous. If you think our freedoms are somehow vulnerable or that public debate in our society is under threat, perhaps what you need is a holiday in Kuwait.