Protect freedom of expression

Protect freedom of expression

Page 11 of 163: 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

Report: ‘blasphemy’ backlash could lead to violence

Report: ‘blasphemy’ backlash could lead to violence

Posted: Tue, 25 Jul 2023 11:29

Religious backlash to 'blasphemy' could "inspire intimidation, violence and even mass killings" in the UK, a new report has warned.

The report, published by the Henry Jackson Society, cites recent examples of how extreme anti-blasphemy actions have led to death threats.

These include Kettlethorpe High School, where a student scuffed a Quran, and Batley Grammar School, where a teacher was forced into hiding after showing pupils cartoons of the Islamic prophet Muhammad.

It also draws on the 2016 murder of Asad Shah in Glasgow by an Islamist extremist who sought to defend the "honour" of Muhammad.

Shah was a member of the Ahmadiyya Muslim community, which believes that Muhammad was not the final prophet. This belief is considered blasphemous by many Muslims and in Pakistan it is a criminal offence for Ahmadis to refer to themselves as Muslims.

The report says a Pakistan-based religious movement known as Khatme Nubuwaat, which advocates capital punishment for Ahmadis, has been linked to extreme anti-blasphemy actions in the UK.

Extreme anti-blasphemy action deserves the same attention as "the likes of Al-Qaida and Isis", the report says, noting the 2015 attack on Charlie Hebdo magazine and the 2020 murder of Samuel Paty in France as examples of the most extreme outcomes.

It also remarks on a "subculture of competition" between certain Islamic sects to demonstrate the most zealous defence against perceived insults to Muhammad.

The report recommends an interdepartmental task force be set up to investigate anti-blasphemy actions at schools; local councillors receive dedicated training to respond to anti-blasphemy actions; and the Department for Education issue robust public statements that prioritise upholding free speech in response to anti-blasphemy actions.

It comes in the wake of the UN Human Rights Council passing a resolution to ban the burning of religious texts including the Koran.

Blasphemy laws have been repealed in England, Scotland and Wales but remain on the statute book in Northern Ireland.

NSS: "Concrete steps" needed to support schools and other institutions

NSS campaigns officer Alejandro Sanchez said: "This report lays bare the dangers associated with de facto blasphemy laws in the UK.

"Free speech is a fundamental human right which must not be undermined by fears of violence.

"The government must now take concrete steps to better support schools and other institutions accused of offending religious sensibilities."

Image: London/United Kingdom - October 30 2020: Muslim protesters stage an anti France demonstration outside French embassy in London. I T S, Shutterstock.

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."

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