We Dissent: International Blasphemy Rights Day Comes with a New Urgency in 2020

September 30, 2020

It would be easy to let International Blasphemy Rights Day go for this year. The pandemic, protests, the election, wildfires—don’t we have enough to think about right now? We can come back to opposing blasphemy laws next year, right?

We can’t. The right to criticize and question religion is not a luxury, something to be upheld only when we have extra time and bandwidth. It’s a fundamental component of a free society. Criminalizing blasphemy is about more than saying it’s not okay to make fun of a religious figure or refute the claims in a holy book. It’s about controlling people’s speech, writing, art, behavior, and thoughts in order to conform to one particular, narrow worldview. It’s about putting ideas above people. 

When a country’s government imprisons one of its people for committing blasphemy, they are drawing parameters for what is acceptable to say and believe for everyone. When religious militants murder someone for a perceived act of blasphemy, the intent is the same: to define the limits of what can and cannot be spoken or thought. They are placing the primacy of an idea over the rights—and the lives—of actual, living human beings. 

Through the fog of the chaos that has marked this year, it’s been easy to miss the fact 2020 has been a particularly dark year in terms of the crackdown on blasphemy and dissent. This year in Nigeria alone, a 22-year-old man has been sentenced to death over something he said in a group chat, a thirteen-year-old boy faces a decade in prison over comments allegedly made to a friend, and the leader of Nigeria’s humanist association has been in detention since May, his whereabouts still unknown. 

All of this follows a spate of murders and attacks in Nigeria against those suspected of practicing witchcraft, which we spoke out against this summer. As this example shows, whether or not a state prohibits blasphemy explicitly, radicalized or cynical individuals will often do it for them. Just weeks ago in Pakistan, state strictures against blasphemy and vigilantism collided when Tahir Ahmed Naseem, a U.S. citizen, was before a judge in a courtroom, on trial for blasphemy, when he was shot to death by a religious extremist. 

As I write this, some of those responsible for the 2015 slaughter of the staff of the French satire magazine Charlie Hebdo are facing trial in Paris. A few days ago a man still angry at the publisher attacked two people with a knife outside the magazine’s offices (neither of the victims were associated with Charlie Hebdo). 

The Center for Inquiry came out strongly in solidarity with Charlie Hebdo and its right to ridicule religious figures, as we have always done. International Blasphemy Rights Day first came about as a result of the violent backlash that broke out over “blasphemous” cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad, published in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten in 2006. The Center for Inquiry’s Free Inquiry magazine was the first national U.S. print publication to reprint those cartoons, in defiance of threats, hand-wringing, and a ban from a major bookseller’s shelves. 

When states cannot or will not defend their own people’s rights to free expression and belief, we have done our best to fill as much of the void as we can. For years, CFI has maintained an active presence at the UN Human Rights Council, where we have faced down perpetrators of persecution such as Saudi Arabia, which once felt the need to shout down our representative when she was speaking the truth about their violation of the rights of dissidents like Raif Badawi. She was not silenced by them, but Raif is still in prison.

Today, the Center for Inquiry maintains the Secular Rescue program, which seeks to assist secularist writers and activists who have been targeted for their “blasphemy,” and wish to avoid the fate met by so many other courageous dissidents who lost their lives to extremist violence. We have helped dozens of individuals and families escape persecution, violence, and death, but we can never save them all. 

Ideas are humanity’s superpower, its most powerful tools. But they are just that: tools. A hammer has no feelings to be hurt, a pen has no rights to be infringed. If they are good tools, human beings can do great things with them. If they are bad tools, they can be repaired or discarded. Just like ideas. Good ideas help us prosper, bad ideas make us suffer. We need to be able to say so.

Here’s our idea: Stand up for the right to dissent. Stand up for the right to question, criticize, and ridicule all ideas—religious, political, cultural, scientific, or otherwise. They can take it! Stand up for human beings.