Protect freedom of expression

Protect freedom of expression

Page 18 of 164: 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

Prevent review calls for greater focus on ‘blasphemy’ accusations

Prevent review calls for greater focus on ‘blasphemy’ accusations

Posted: Thu, 16 Feb 2023 17:12

A review of the UK's Prevent counter-terrorism programme has called for increased efforts to tackle "so-called blasphemy narratives".

The independent review, led by William Shawcross, highlighted the "violence associated with accusations of blasphemy and apostasy" as an area of particular importance in countering extremism.

An improved understanding of blasphemy and its role in the wider threat posed by Islamism was amongst the review's recommendations, all of which have been accepted by the government.

The review said it was "vital" that the ideological threat of blasphemy is "proactively" addressed, due to the "serious challenge it poses to our national culture of free speech" and to public safety.

The events in Batley, Yorkshire, where a teacher had to receive police protection after he showed his class a cartoon of Mohammed during a lesson on free speech, were raised by Shawcross as being of particular concern.

Shawcross said it was "thoroughly shameful" that a teacher in a "liberal democratic society" was subject to "threats and intimidation" as a result of "allegations of blasphemy".

Shawcross noted that five months before the events in Batley, French schoolteacher Samuel Paty was murdered after similar accusations.

The review criticised what was described by a "senior Prevent practitioner" as a "lack of leadership" in response to the incident, noting that the more "robust public responses" came from outside the government. The practitioner also highlighted the absence of "a co-ordinated and connected stance".

Shawcross expressed concern that "Prevent and its local partners did not play a vocal role in response to the protests", and that the events in Batley were "precisely the type of challenge" where Prevent should direct additional resources.

The NSS raised similar concerns over the handling of the Batley affair with the Department for Education.

The cases of Muslims who have been murdered in the UK by "those citing blasphemy or apostasy as justification" were also highlighted by Shawcross.

In March 2016 Asad Shah, an Ahmadiyya Muslim shopkeeper, was murdered in Glasgow. In the same year an Imam in Rochdale, Jalal Uddin, was also murdered. Both murders were celebrated and justified by extremists on the grounds of 'blasphemy'.

The review said Prevent should regard those who legitimise blasphemy narratives and refuse to condemn violence linked to blasphemy as "part of the problem".

Government funding of extremism

Shawcross also said the government should not fund or engage with groups or individuals linked to instances of extremism..

The report revealed the government had directly funded organisations which promoted extremist narratives.

One Islamist organisation linked to the Iranian regime, the Islamic Human Rights Commission Trust, received £10,000 of public money as support provided to local businesses during the pandemic.

The organisation is a registered UK charity.

The review also highlighted how other registered charities are listed as "terrorist groups by key international allies". These include Interpal, which despite being a Specially Designated Global Terrorist group in the United States enjoys charitable status in the UK.

The report said Interpal had held fundraising events with the Nottingham Islam Information Point (NIIP). NIIP has been endorsed by Asad Fazil, the CEO of an organisation funded by Prevent.

The report also recommended retaining the terminology currently used to describe Islamist and Far-Right ideology. It rejected the criticisms of groups such as the National Association of Muslim Police, who have argued terms such as 'Islamist' contribute towards 'Islamophobic' sentiments.

NSS: 'Greater attention on blasphemy accusations welcome'

Jack Rivington, campaigns officer at the National Secular Society, said: "The Shawcross review's recommendation for an increased focus on tackling 'blasphemy' narratives is welcome.

"As well as the risk they pose to wider society, such narratives are also utilised by fundamentalists to threaten members of their own religious communities.

"Disappointingly, all too often political and public figures have been complicit with the deliberate tactic of equating so-called 'blasphemy' with racism or 'Islamophobia'. This undermines free speech and the freedom of religious belief.

"A robust defence of free speech at the forefront of efforts to counter extremism, though overdue, is therefore a positive step".

Soheil Arabi

Fears grow for Iranian atheist Soheil Arabi

Posted: Wed, 11 Jan 2023 13:08

The National Secular Society has joined a campaign for the release of an atheist blogger arrested in Iran.

Soheil Arabi, a critic of Iran's Islamic republic, was reportedly arrested on 2 January. During his arrest, he was beaten so badly that he had a heart attack and was taken to hospital, according to the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain (CEMB).

Arabi is being held in Greater Tehran Prison. CEMB has said his life "is at grave risk" in light of Iran's crackdown on dissenters since the uprisings sparked by the death of Mahsa Amini last year.

Iran has publicly executed four protesters and arrested over 19,000 people over anti-Islamic Republic demonstrations. Over 500 have been killed during protests.

Arabi has faced continuous persecution for his blogging and social media activities. In 2013 he was sentenced to death on charges of "insulting the Prophet of Islam" in Facebook posts that were critical of the Iranian state. Due to public pressure, the sentence was commuted to several years' imprisonment and two years of mandatory study of Islamic theology.

In 2021 he was sentenced to another two years in prison for "spreading propaganda with the intention of disturbing public opinion".

In 2017 Arabi won Reporters Without Borders's Press Freedom Prize. The prize honours courageous and independent journalists who have faced threats or imprisonment for their work and who have challenged the abuse of power.

NSS: "We join worldwide calls for Arabi's immediate and safe release"

The NSS has joined a coalition of over 40 human rights organisations, coordinated by CEMB, in calling for Arabi's release in a joint statement (below).

NSS chief executive Stephen Evans said: "We are extremely concerned about Soheil Arabi's wellbeing. It's clear his life is in grave danger.

"Iran's silencing of dissenters through threats of violence, imprisonment and execution must be condemned by everyone who values freedom of expression, freedom of conscience and freedom of religion or belief.

"We join worldwide calls for Arabi's immediate and safe release."

In 2021 the NSS joined over 200 organisations and individuals from around the world to pledge support for 'International Soheil Day' on 3 October.

Join statement from the campaign to #FreeSoheil

We, the undersigned ex-Muslim, atheist, secularist and freethought organisations, have joined together to politically sponsor the well-known Iranian atheist and ex-Muslim Soheil Arabi, who was re-arrested from his home on 2 January 2023 by the Islamic Republic of Iran's security forces.

Sources have informed us that he was violently beaten during the arrest, denied much-needed medicine and moved to an unknown location.

We are extremely concerned about his well-being given the increased risk of execution for many protestors and critics in an effort to quell the revolutionary uprising since the murder of Mahsa Jina Amini. As a long-term political prisoner previously on death row, Soheil's life is at grave risk.

A political sponsorship system has proven effective in protecting Iranian political prisoners. As Soheil Arabi's political sponsors, we will continue to advocate and mobilise support and solidarity for him and put pressure on the Islamic regime of Iran to free him immediately and unconditionally.

Atheist Republic | Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain | Ateizm Dernegi (Association of Atheism, Turkey) | Ateizm Dernegi International Foundation | Atheist Ireland | Atheist Refugee Relief | Bread and Roses TV | Center for Inquiry Canada | Center for Inquiry | Freedom From Religion Foundation | Central Committee of Ex-Muslims in Scandinavia | Centre for Civic Courage, Croatia | Council of Ex-Muslims of Germany | Council of Ex-Muslims of Singapore | Council of Ex-Muslims of Sri Lanka | Ex-Muslims of Netherlands | Ex-Muslims Of Norway | Ex-Muslims of Toronto | Faithless Hijabi | FEMEN | Freethought Lebanon | Giordano Bruno Foundation | Humanist Ottawa | Inara association of Tunisian atheists and freethinkers | Indian Rationalist Association | International League of Non-Religious and Atheists | Peter Tatchell Foundation | Kazimierz Lyszczynski Foundation | Kent Community Secular Alliance | Liberals Mauritania | Livonia Arabic Salon | Manaarah Initiative | Muslimish | Arab Humanists USA | National Secular Society | One Law for All | Quebec Humanist Association | Rationalist International | Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason & Science | Secular Connexion Séculière | Secular Underground Network, a project of the Fix Foundation | Secularism is a Women's Issue | Southall Black Sisters

CEMB encourages supporters to take the following action to support Soheil Arabi:

  • Raise awareness on social media using the hashtags #WhereIsSoheilArabi #FreeSoheilArabi
  • Send a letter to your elected representative asking them to put pressure on the Islamic regime
  • Write to the embassy of Islamic Republic calling on them to release Soheil and all political prisoners

More information