Combatting the global epidemic of blasphemy laws, apostasy laws, and other draconian measures that severely restrict free expression, is a core part of CFI’s mission. For some of us, myself included, it’s the most important work we do, fighting to free those being persecuted for expressing their beliefs, and working to curtail the laws that enable this kind of oppression. And while it can’t be at the top of every group’s agenda, I often take for granted that everyone in the U.S. at least generally agrees with us: that free expression is a universal human right. And indeed, international law says as much, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which states:
Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice.
But leave it to the religious right: They never fail to disappoint.
Those who follow the church-state battles in the U.S. will at least have heard of the American Center for Law and Justice, a right-wing activist group founded by Pat Robertson that seeks to entangle religion into government more than it already is. But for all our disagreements, they have spoken out against the use of blasphemy laws to persecute religious minorities in the Islamic world. They of course focus on the persecution of Christians (while we explicitly stand against these laws being used against anyone, be they atheist or devout believer), but their stand at least seemed principled. In fact, their European branch, the European Center for Law and Justice, told the UN:
Blasphemy prohibitions and laws regarding the defamation of religions violate the very foundations of the human rights tradition by protecting ideas instead of the person who hold those ideas. … Freedom of expression includes the right to be controversial, insulting, or offensive, even when such expression targets ideas that are devoutly held beliefs.
But we recently learned through Right Wing Watch that their statements from one side of their mouths don’t match those coming out of the other. It turns out that their Russian branch, the Slavic Center for Law and Justice (SCLJ), is just fine with blasphemy laws. In fact, when the Russian protest band Pussy Riot was arrested in 2012 for “hooliganism” and a genuine blasphemy law was being formulated, the SCLJ couldn’t contain its enthusiasm for a wholesale crackdown on free expression, urging the Russian government:
…to toughen laws against incitement of religious hatred and hostility, but also against insult to the religious feelings of the faithful and assaults against their shrines and temples. We also believe that there is an urgent need to introduce harsh punishments for disseminating such information on the Internet.
So this is not splitting hairs. Hurting religious feelings should absolutely get you in deep trouble with the state, says the American Center for Law and Justice’s Russian branch. They were also very happy about a bill criminalizing “gay propaganda,” an enthusiasm shared by the European branch as well. (And don’t even get me started on the ACLJ’s involvement in the odious anti-gay laws in Africa.)
But these are just “branches,” right? Perhaps their affiliation with the American office is in name only. Nope. Again, according to Right Wing Watch, the ACLJ funded the SCLJ to the tune of $300,000 in 2012 (with $1.1 million for the European branch), and ACLJ’s leader, Jay Sekulow, is the founder and listed as “chief counsel” for the ECLJ.
CFI and ACLJ agree on almost nothing, but there seemed to be a general understanding that while we would never see eye to eye when it came to religion’s role in government, at least we could agree that criminalizing beliefs and speech were a bad idea. Now we see that for the ACLJ and its affiliates this extends only to Christians. For dissidents in Russia, be they non-Christian, gay, atheist, or simply at odds with the regime, CFI will seek to defend their freedom of expression; the ACLJ and its friends will work to see them behind bars.
For us, we’ll keep doing all we can to fight blasphemy laws and restrictions on free speech wherever they arise, whoever they victimize. Check out our Campaign for Free Expression to learn more; read Dissent Denied, our global survey of blasphemy laws; and learn about our efforts on behalf of Saudi dissident Raif Badawi and Sudanese Christian Meriam Ibrahim. Support CFI and help us in this fight.
Image: Pussy Riot’s Nadezhda Tolokonnikova in a Moscow Court.