The fundamental right to freedom of expression is under attack around the world. The targets of the assault are those who question, criticize, or satirize religious beliefs, cultural customs, or political figures. These dissidents are not violent insurgents wielding guns or machetes, but writers, activists, thinkers, scholars, and everyday citizens living their lives and speaking their minds. Their weapons are pens, keyboards, and their own human voices.
To silence these voices, a global crackdown is underway, where those who exercise their right to free expression are persecuted, threatened, jailed, tortured, or killed. The assault is being waged by religious demagogues, angry mobs, and radicalized individuals, as well as by governments, both local and national, leveling charges of blasphemy and “insulting religion” against dissidents. And through the abuse of individuals, they seek to terrorize the population as a whole into resigned submission.
The Campaign for Free Expression is an initiative of the Center for Inquiry (CFI) created to resist this crackdown and defend the right of all people to think, believe, and speak as they choose without fear of government sanction or violent reprisal. We find ourselves in the midst of what is no less than a human rights crisis that even the most pessimistic Enlightenment-era thinker could not have thought possible in the 21st century. But whether those speaking out are atheist or religious; liberal or conservative; Christian, Hindu, Muslim, or of any or no faith, the Campaign for Free Expression exists to fight for their right to speak.
Consider just a few examples:
- Raif Badawi is founder of the website Liberal Saudi Network, which was dedicated to fostering open discussion of religion and politics in Saudi Arabia. He is also an advocate for freedom of religion, belief, and expression, and women’s rights. He is currently imprisoned in Saudi Arabia for insulting Islam.
- Asia Bibi is a Christian mother of five who was living as a farm worker in Pakistan. In 2010, Bibi was alleged to have made blasphemous remarks following a disagreement with a Muslim coworker who refused to drink from a container of water she carried, believing it was tainted. In November 2010, Bibi was convicted of blasphemy and became the first woman to be sentenced to death in Pakistan for that crime. She remains in jail while her case is being appealed.
- Dr. Avijit Roy was a Bangladeshi-American human rights activist and blogger known for his work defending freedom of thought and critical thinking. In 2001, Roy founded a forum for Bengali freethinkers called Mukto-Mona. He authored eight books and wrote articles for the Center for Inquiry’s magazine Free Inquiry. In February 2015, Roy visited his home country with his wife for the Ekushey Book Fair in Dhaka. They were attacked but extremists armed with machetes; Roy died, and his wife barely survived.
For many in positions of power around the world, whether religious or political, even examples such as these are not sufficient crackdowns on freedom of thought. While some leaders offer vague platitudes that invoke a need to curtail certain forms of sensitive speech, others are far more severe. They seek ironclad global restrictions on what can and cannot be expressed about religion and religious figures, criminalizing on a planetary scale any speech that might offend religious sentiments. Eruptions of violence in majority-Muslim countries ostensibly in response to an anti-Islam Internet video, the murders of secular bloggers and activists in Bangladesh and India, and a massacre perpetrated on a Paris newspaper over its satirical cartoons, have prompted leaders in Egypt, Indonesia, Turkey, and other countries to seize upon the unrest and call upon the United Nations to enact binding resolutions against the so-called “defamation of religion.” Worried about further violence and wary of the appearance of insensitivity, many pro-democracy governments and organizations have begun to soften in their defense of free expression.
At the Center for Inquiry, we believe it’s time for us as a unified human species to stand up and declare that this is unacceptable.
Despite what many would have us believe, the right to freedom of expression is not a luxury valued mainly by Western elites, but a widely accepted, foundational principle of civilization. Several important international agreements clearly outline that freedom of expression is a universal right possessed by all persons, regardless of geography or nationality.
No one, anywhere, should face social or legal punishment simply for speaking about his or her beliefs in public. And, importantly, no topic should be off limits—especially religion, which has such an enormous impact on the lives of billions. Part of the freedom of expression is the freedom to inquire—to ask questions and seek answers beyond what is dictated by a religious text or cultural dogma. This freedom is at the core of CFI’s mission. How can we truly have freedom and equality if certain groups of people aren’t allowed to exercise the same rights as anyone else? And how can we as a civilization grow, learn, and prosper if we sit back and allow the suppression—too often violent—of minority viewpoints?
The right to freedom of expression is being whittled away, person by person, law by law, and innocent and peaceful people are every day suffering the consequences. It is not a problem isolated to a faraway land. The crackdown of free expression reverberates around the planet.
The aims of the Campaign for Free Expression are to increase public awareness of these threats; discuss and develop plans to fight back, both in the world’s halls of power and at the grassroots; and to demonstrate that people value their right to freedom of expression and are eager to exercise it.
We hope you join us.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is the Campaign for Free Expression?
The Campaign for Free Expression is an initiative of the Center for Inquiry to raise awareness regarding one of the most foundational human rights: the freedom to speak and to express one’s views without persecution or oppression.
But isn’t free expression protected in the United States?
Yes, but Americans are fortunate. Around the world, people routinely face social and legal punishment simply for stating their position on topics such as religion, whether they are expressing their belief in a given faith or their doubts. This is where the Campaign is focused.
What is the purpose or goal of the Campaign?
CFI launched this Campaign with two goals.
First, we seek to raise consciousness about the insidious prevalence of laws around the world that restrict freedom of expression, as well as the disturbing number of cases in which peaceful people have been targeted and punished simply for stating their views on religion.
Second, we want people to take action: to make others aware of the current situation; to contact governmental leaders, diplomats, and others in positions of influence over laws and social norms regarding free expression; and to reach out and support those who are right now being oppressed and persecuted by blasphemy laws and similar restrictions.
Through accomplishing these aims, we hope to show the world that the freedom of expression enjoys broad, global support.
What is the Campaign doing to achieve these aims?
A number of things, central of which is launching a website, www.centerforinquiry.net/cfe. This website details laws and cases of expression being restricted, allowing people to learn about many of the current threats to free expression, along with featuring advocacy material like petitions and action alerts.
This is happening in concert with the political advocacy that CFI has been doing for years at both the on Capitol Hill and at the United Nations.
Where does CFI/the Campaign stand on inflammatory speech, such as burning a Qu’ran?
CFI considers such speech on a case-by-case basis. In the case of burning a Qu’ran, we would rather people read and discuss the book as a more constructive alternative to an act that might only cause anger. But the point of this Campaign is to raise awareness about why freedom of expression is a universal human right. We might not agree with the burning of a Qu’ran, but we oppose attempts to punish those who do.
How can you say free expression is a universal human right? Many people do not agree with that.
Several international agreements state explicitly that freedom of expression is a universal human right.
This right was first recognized in 1948 in United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 19) and was given the force of international law in 1966 by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (Article 19). Article 19 of the ICCPR reads that:
“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.” (ICCPR, Article 19)
These agreements are not arbitrary, nor are they based on an exclusively Western interpretation of values. They are based on a universally recognizable secular humanist moral code that leaves private and personal beliefs for homes and churches and values freedom of conscience, reason, and naturalism in the public square.