Protect freedom of expression

Protect freedom of expression

Page 10 of 162: We promote free speech as a positive value.

Democracy cannot exist without the right to free speech.

Free speech should be robustly defended as a fundamental freedom.

The National Secular Society has defended free speech from religious threats since our founding. We played an instrumental role in abolishing "blasphemy" laws in Britain, but serious concerns remain. Blasphemy laws still exist in Northern Ireland. And throughout the UK, religious fundamentalists seek to impose their blasphemy taboos on others through violence and intimidation.

There are also increasing attempts to categorise offending religious sensibilities as 'hate speech', making criticism, mockery or perceived 'insult' of religion a criminal act akin to racial hatred or inciting violence – in other words, a 'blasphemy law by the back door'.

Without free speech no search for truth is possible; without free speech no discovery of truth is useful; without free speech progress is checked… Better a thousand fold abuse of free speech than denial of free speech.

NSS founder Charles Bradlaugh

We are further concerned by a developing 'culture of offence' in which any speech or action deemed likely to offend religious sensibilities is considered taboo. Enforced by a toxic mix of terrorism and religious deference, this is chilling free speech through self-censorship.

We also campaign against blasphemy laws around the world, where they continue to be used to target religious and political minorities. These are sometimes described by UK politicians as 'misuse' of blasphemy laws, but we contend there are never any legitimate uses for blasphemy laws.

Being offended from time to time is the price we all pay for living in a free society. Rather than trying to silence those we disagree with, we believe the answer to speech we don't like is more speech – better speech.

We therefore campaign to protect and preserve freedom of expression, including offensive, critical and shocking speech.

What you can do

1. Share your story

Tell us why you support this campaign, and how you are personally affected by the issue. You can also let us know if you would like assistance with a particular issue.

2. Join us

Become a member of the National Secular Society today! Together, we can separate religion and state for greater freedom and fairness.

Latest updates

UN rights body votes in favour of banning Quran burnings

UN rights body votes in favour of banning Quran burnings

Posted: Thu, 13 Jul 2023 10:21

The National Secular Society has warned a United Nations resolution to ban the burning of religious texts could be detrimental to human rights.

Members of the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) today voted in favour of a resolution for the "deliberately and publicly" burning of the Quran or "any other holy book" to be prohibited by law.

The UK voted against the resolution. In a statement yesterday, the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office said: "we do not accept that, by definition, attacks on religion, including on religious texts or symbols, constitute advocacy for hatred".

Other states opposed to the motion included France, Germany and the USA, but they were outvoted 28 to 12.

The resolution follows a high profile incident in Sweden last month, when Iraqi refugee Salwan Momika burned a Quran outside a mosque in Stockholm. Momika is an atheist formerly from Iraq's persecuted minority Christian community.

The resolution was introduced by Pakistan on behalf of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), which has long supported efforts to curtail 'blasphemous' speech.

The OIC is an intergovernmental organisation of 57 states and claims to be the "collective voice of the Muslim world". Although it stopped explicitly campaigning for a global blasphemy law in 2011, it has repeatedly spearheaded attempts to install "backdoor" blasphemy laws. The NSS warned the UN of the OIC's attempts to use 'hate speech' laws to restrict free expression last year.

The resolution passed was amended to include the explicit provision that burning the Quran and other holy books should be banned. The original resolution did not include this statement.

Allegations of Quran desecration are regularly used in Islamic theocracies to persecute members of minority communities. Last year, a 65-year old member of Pakistan's Ahmadi Muslim community was arrested after being accused of destroying an anti-Ahmadi propaganda poster that had verses from the Quran on it, according to the International Human Rights Commission. Ahmadi Muslims face widespread oppression and discrimination at the hands of the Pakistan state.

During the debate on OIC's resolution, the UK's representative to the UN Simon Manley said some members of the OIC have "not shown the same willingness to debate a certain other largescale, and in this case, state-sponsored manifestation of religious intolerance affecting a significant Muslim community."

He added: "In combatting religious intolerance, we must always be mindful that other rights must also be respected.

"The exercise of the right to freedom of expression is not unlimited. But it is something we hold dear, and which can only be limited under very clear, narrowly defined parameters under international human rights law."

UNHRC resolutions are not legally binding, but can be used to pressure states to change their laws.

NSS: OIC "more interested in protecting religion than protecting individuals"

NSS chief executive Stephen Evans said: "Equating the desecration of religious books and symbols with incitement to violence is a pernicious attempt to impose blasphemy laws by stealth. The Islamic nations behind this resolution have long been more interested in protecting religion than protecting individuals.

"Speech and expression must be viewed in context. Crude attempts to impose blanket prohibitions clearly risk capturing and silencing legitimate expression and dissent.

"Democratic societies must find ways to combat intolerance and hatred without further restricting freedom of expression to meet increasing sensitivities of certain religious groups."

NSS defend mayor ousted for questioning religious circumcision

NSS defend mayor ousted for questioning religious circumcision

Posted: Thu, 15 Jun 2023 11:19

The National Secular Society has teamed up with a men's health charity to raise concerns after a mayor was ousted for criticising religious circumcision.

In a 2008 blog, former mayor of Neyland town council Andrew Lye questioned why religious circumcision of children was necessary if God "made man in his own image".

At a meeting earlier this month, fellow councillor Brian Rothero said the remarks were "nothing short of antisemitic and anti-Muslim". The council subsequently voted to remove Lye from the mayoralty and Lye has now resigned from the council.

In a joint letter sent to Neyland town council yesterday, the NSS and 15 Square criticised the allegations against Lye as "baseless" and said they would have a chilling effect on free expression.

15 Square is a registered charity which supports men dealing with the physical and psychological problems arising from circumcision.

"In a free and open society, religious beliefs and practices must remain open to scrutiny and debate. Individuals should be afforded respect and protection, but ideas should not", the letter said.

The letter also pointed out that circumcision has been listed as a "harmful" practice by the United Nations. In 2015 a British judge described it as "more invasive" than some forms of female genital mutilation and held that it met the definition of "significant harm" under the Children Act 1989.

Three boys have bled to death in recent years post-circumcision in the UK (Celian Noumbiwe, Angelo Ofori-Mintah, and Goodluck Caubergs) and 11 were admitted in just one year to just one hospital with life-threatening haemorrhage or sepsis. An NHS whistleblower, himself a paediatric surgeon, said in 2016 circumcisions were leaving children "maimed for life".

A Freedom of Information Request to the General Medical Council last year revealed complications of circumcision recorded between 2012 and 2022 included penile deformity, infection, urinary complications and inadequate anaesthesia. Babies required blood transfusions in some cases.

A 2018 YouGov poll showed 62% of the British public would support a law against non-medical circumcision of boys.

NSS: "Andrew Lye spoke up in defence of the bodily integrity and autonomy of children"

NSS campaigns officer Dr Alejandro Sanchez said: "In 2016, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child urged the government to ensure 'no one is subjected to unnecessary medical or surgical treatment during infancy or childhood'.

"Religious infant circumcision is exactly that: unnecessary, painful and risky surgery on non-consenting children to satisfy religious or cultural beliefs of their parents. Allegations of antisemitism or Islamophobia cannot be allowed to silence legitimate criticism of harmful religious practices.

"Andrew Lye has been ousted from the mayoralty because he spoke up in defence of the bodily integrity and autonomy of children. This will now have a chilling effect on anyone in politics wanting to speak out for children's fundamental rights."

Image by Thorsten Frenzel from Pixabay

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