Protect freedom of expression

Protect freedom of expression

Page 19 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

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
Scottish councillors vote not to adopt ‘Islamophobia’ definition

Scottish councillors vote not to adopt ‘Islamophobia’ definition

Posted: Mon, 21 Nov 2022 13:47

Councillors have voted not to adopt a definition of 'Islamophobia' that could undermine freedom to criticise Islam, following advice from the National Secular Society.

On Thursday Aberdeenshire Council's Business Services Committee voted to adopt an alternative motion to the Islamophobia definition, after NSS chief executive Stephen Evans warned the definition "might be a counterproductive way of addressing anti-Muslim bigotry and hatred".

The council recommended the committee adopt the definition created by the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on British Muslims, which states: "Islamophobia is rooted in racism and is a type of racism that targets expressions of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness".

But the committee instead voted in favour of a motion tabled by Cllr David Keating to "note the definition of Islamophobia", "condemn all discrimination against race or belief", and "agree to address any anti-Muslim bias or prejudice identified in Aberdeenshire".

Councillors voted 7:7 on adopting this alternative motion, which passed with the chair's casting vote.

The vote followed an open letter from Muslim Engagement and Development (MEND) urging all Scottish councils to adopt it. MEND has been accused of supporting an Islamist agenda.

In 2019 Lancashire County Council also rejected the Islamophobia definition following an NSS intervention.

NSS: Islamophobia definition fails to "separate people from ideas"

Addressing the council, Stephen Evans spoke of the need to "separate people from ideas", which the Islamophobia definition "categorically fails to do".

He noted that the APPG definition had been rejected by the UK government and widely criticised by human rights experts.

He said that it was "dangerous" to suggest Muslims are not already protected by law, because laws that protect everyone from discrimination, harassment and violence apply equally to Muslims, and crimes motivated by hatred of members of a particular religion face more severe penalties.

He urged the council to "find other ways to foster social cohesion and of tackling anti-Muslim hatred that don't conflate race with religion or the criticism of ideas with hostility against people".

He concluded: "We need to build a more cohesive and tolerant society. This definition is contentious because it threatens the conditions we need to do that."

Speaking in response, councillor David Keating said the "vague" Islamophobia definition creates a "reasonable risk of legitimate debate being inhibited". He said it was part of a "tide of little erosions" of which the overall effect is a "dilution of one of our most precious values."

Speaking after the meeting, NSS chief executive Stephen Evans said: "Aberdeenshire councillors should be commended for applying some healthy skepticism to the concept of Islamophobia.

"The decision to note the definition, rather than adopt it, while working to end anti-Muslim discrimination and bigotry strikes a balance between protecting people from harm and protecting the fundamental right to free speech.

"Other councils should take note of this approach."

Listen to Stephen's speech at the meeting (from 1:25:05)

Read Jack Rivington's recent opinion piece on Islamophobia Awareness Month

More information